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Roll Call

Republicans May Have Debt Ceiling Strategy

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
At the House GOP Conference retreat last week, leaders worked with a handful of conservative members to come up with a plan to raise the debt ceiling. From left: Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy met with a working group of five GOP members that endorsed that proposal.

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Republicans came here to begin forming a strategy for the series of upcoming spending battles and ended up finding one before their retreat was even over.

The fine print is still being drafted, but the GOP now feels it has some forward momentum after a brutal holiday stretch of failed negotiating ploys and infighting.

Despite a new feeling of unity, Republican demands for raising the debt ceiling have been scaled back after a concerted push by several leading lawmakers, such as Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, to inject a sense of reality into what the rank and file could reasonably hope to accomplish as they battle a Democratic president and Senate over the next two years.

So they settled on a plan they hope will put the focus of the fiscal debates back on Democrats. Republicans want to give the Senate three months to pass a budget, something the chamber has not done in years, or face their paychecks being withheld after that deadline.

Importantly, the new strategy had the backing of a working group, led by Ryan, of influential conservative Reps. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Tom Price of Georgia, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

Those lawmakers blessed the plan in a private meeting with Speaker John A. Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy on the morning of Jan. 18, prompting questions about whether the working group will remain a center of power in future strategic decisions by Boehner.

Sweetening the pot for the right were two promises by GOP leaders, according to a statement of support for the plan released jointly by Hensarling, Price, Jordan and Scalise.

First, they agreed to keep discretionary spending at the same top-line level it would be at under the automatic sequestration cuts that are set to go into effect in two months. Under that agreement, the only replacement for the sequester would be other spending cuts of the same amount.

Second, leaders agreed to “work to put the country on the path to a balanced budget in 10 years,” something that conservative outside groups have been clamoring for.

Republicans are hoping a short-term debt limit increase will allow them to make incremental progress on spending while slowing President Barack Obama’s agenda and framing the debate in their favor.

“In doing so, we still keep the administration on a short leash, because three months later they’re going to have to deal with us again,” Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said. “Every time the president has to come to us to keep government going, that gives us just another opportunity to say, ‘Mr. President, we can get out of your hair, and you can get on to whatever your agendas are ... but we’re going to keep this front and center.’”

He added, “We’re just going to be there in his face about these things until he’s willing to resolve these issues with us.”

Still, some Republicans questioned whether the proposal to withhold lawmakers’ pay over passage of a budget was even constitutional, given that the 27th Amendment prohibits changes in congressional pay until the beginning of a new Congress.

Democrats did not reject the plan out of hand last week. The White House and Democratic leaders seemed to view the offer as a signal that Republicans were moving away from the brinkmanship that has characterized debates over the debt limit and other fiscal deadlines for the past two years.

“If the House can pass a clean debt ceiling increase to avoid default and allow the United States to meet its existing obligations, we will be happy to consider it,” said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Jentleson added that the scaled-back plan showed “Republicans beginning to back off their threat to hold our economy hostage.”

Notably, a “clean” debt ceiling is not what Republicans are offering, and even moderate members such as Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., are adamant that no such bill could pass the House.

Meanwhile, the president has vowed repeatedly not to negotiate at all over the debt ceiling, and Obama rejected the idea of “doing this on a one-to-three-month time frame” on Jan. 14.

But on Jan. 18, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney did not immediately dismiss the notion of a short-term solution to the debt limit issue.

“The president has made clear that Congress has only two options: pay the bills they have racked up, or fail to do so and put our nation into default,” Carney said. “We are encouraged that there are signs that congressional Republicans may back off their insistence on holding our economy hostage to extract drastic cuts in Medicare, education and programs middle-class families depend on. Congress must pay its bills and pass a clean debt limit increase without further delay. And as he has said, the president remains committed to further reducing the deficit in a balanced way.”

That’s exactly what House Republicans say their goal is, too — even if the two sides have repeatedly clashed about how to do it. In fact, some Republicans said the new arrangement does not mean that they are abandoning the “Boehner rule,” which calls for $1 of spending cuts for every $1 the debt limit is raised.

“It would be missing the point to just look at the short-term debt limit increase as the end-all be-all,” a House Republican aide said.

“Obviously the short-term debt limit increase is a step toward getting a much bigger solution. It is a tactical move. We are on better ground on the sequester and the [continuing resolution]. ... The first step in finding a real, long-term spending solution is for the Senate to engage and pass a budget,” the aide said.

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