As the GOP searches for a way to save face with conservatives, climb out of the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling, senior House Republicans are hoping to shift the focus from Obamacare to spending.
Wednesday's Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed from Rep. Paul D. Ryan titled “Here’s How We Can End This Stalemate,” and noticeably absent was the one word that prompted the shutdown chess match: Obamacare.
The Wisconsin Republican is advocating broad, long-term cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, calling those mandatory spending programs “the nation’s biggest challenge.”
He isn’t alone in that thought. Many senior Republicans have long felt the party would be better off fighting for a spending and entitlement overhaul than for a delay or repeal of parts of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
Ryan quickly received backing from more establishment members of the GOP who had panned the idea of a shutdown and default fight over Obamacare in the first place, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a key ally of Speaker John A. Boehner.
"At the end of the day, it’s now really a debt ceiling discussion," said Cole, who endorsed Ryan's op-ed during a C-SPAN appearance. "It’s not over Obamacare. It’s really a budget, classic taxes, entitlements, spending reform kind of debate."
Aides said Ryan has been in constant contact with leadership. One aide said the Ryan proposal already has traction within the GOP, and several rank-and-file conservatives told CQ Roll Call the focus has shifted to reining in entitlements.
“That’s where we need to be,” said Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida as he came out of a Wednesday meeting with the Republican Study Committee. “I mean the mandatory spending is killing this country, and if we don’t get that under control, we’re not going to solve this problem.”
Yoho said the shift from Obamacare to fiscal issues “seems to be” common within the GOP conference — although he's still not sure the debt limit needs to go up.
"I need to be schooled, or somebody needs to convince me, why we need to raise the debt ceiling," Yoho said.
Though Ryan said Republicans weren’t giving up on Obamacare — noting, “We’re bringing that to the table" — some tea party groups were peeved.
Jenny Beth Martin, the national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, released a statement Wednesday that said Ryan’s op-ed missed the mark.
“We must remember the reason we are fighting and remain united in our opposition to Obamacare,” Martin said.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a former Republican Study Committee chairman, said Obamacare is “still a central part” of the CR and debt limit argument.
“Lots of ideas out there. We just keep making the argument that Obamacare is unfair the way it’s being implemented,” Jordan said.
Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana signaled that some aspect of Obamacare would need to be addressed to win the committee’s support.
He said there was no reason the so-called Vitter amendment — which would eliminate health care subsidies for members of Congress, staff and executive branch workers — should be a “deal-killer.” But Scalise said the committee is mainly focused on “Washington’s spending problem.”
Scalise also said the Republican Study Committee is focused on extracting concessions on the debt limit, even on just a short-term agreement.
“There’s still a lot of things that we can do to do short-term increases in the debt ceiling and actually address the spending problem at the same time,” Scalise said.
But others in the GOP conference are showing openness to raising the debt ceiling without concessions, at least temporarily, and keeping the fight on the CR.
That's the position of Heritage Action for America CEO Michael Needham, who was a principle pusher of the defund-Obamacare-through-the-CR strategy. On Wednesday, Needham said his “tactic” for dismantling Obamacare “is to focus on the CR.”
He’s not alone.
Conservative columnist Erick Erickson wrote an op-ed Monday that advised Republicans to raise the debt ceiling but keep the Obamacare fight going on the CR.
“I think there is a discussion of separating the two, maybe make sure we don’t default and continue to fight spending levels,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga, a senior appropriator.
The push for an escape hatch could grow as polls show the party taking a beating over the shutdown and Wall Street gets nervous as a default gets closer. A new Gallup poll released Wednesday showed the Republican Party dipping to the lowest approval rating on record going back 20 years — 28 percent, down 10 points in a month.
Democrats and the White House say they are open to negotiations, provided the GOP opens the government and extends the debt ceiling in the meantime.
Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen of Maryland told reporters Wednesday that there could be agreement on a set of principles to guide lawmakers on a path to a negotiated fiscal 2014 budget.
"There may be room to find a sliver of hope," he said.
There were small signals of movement Wednesday — and speculation about whether both parties could agree on a budget framework that would include at a minimum a short-term debt limit hike.
First, Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor met with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer. And the leaders seemed tight-lipped — a typical sign of progress.
President Barack Obama also invited the entire House Republican Conference to the White House Thursday. But Republicans were hopeful that a “smaller group of negotiators” would create a more fruitful discussion. Among the 18 Republicans headed to the White House? Ryan, the House Budget chairman.
Emma Dumain contributed to this report.