Republicans yet to decide what they want in return for debt-ceiling hike

Republican leaders have yet to figure out what they want to get out of the debt limit fight, just weeks before risking a default.

GOP lawmakers of all stripes have been adamant that Democrats will have to give something in exchange for a boost to the $16.7 trillion borrowing cap. But exactly what is still a big question.

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“The leadership has been deliberately quiet on this particular issue,” said Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.).

An exact plan is at least a week away and is likely to be debated at the GOP retreat starting Jan. 29. That will leave members with just a few weeks to get past well-dug battle lines.

“They’re a ways off from coming up with an ask,” said one former GOP aide. “It’s anyone’s guess.”

If a debt limit plan waits until the end of next week, Congress will have just four weeks to strike a deal. And for one of those weeks, Congress is scheduled to be out of session for the Presidents’ Day recess.

Steve Bell, senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said GOP leadership staff are concerned that members have not yet realized how little time they have to haggle.

“The fact that they’re going to have less time to fiddle around with it is something that I don’t think Congress is used to,” said Bell, who has been approached by House GOP staff for analysis of the deadline. “I think that’s what worried some of the senior staff on the Hill.”

According to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, the nation will be in danger of missing payments by the end of February. The debt limit will be hit on Feb. 7, at which point Treasury can use its “extraordinary measures” to buy Congress just a little more time to act.

February is a tax-refund heavy month in which the government spend much more than it takes, which gives the Treasury less flexibility than in the past.

Early indications are that this debt limit fight will not be a repeat of the epic standoffs from the past. Eyeing a potential takeover of the Senate in 2015, many Republicans appear unwilling to rock the boat with a knock-down drag-out fight.

Republicans are adamant they will not give the White House a “clean” debt limit hike free of any policy provisions, as Democrats have demanded. But gone are demands from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that any debt limit increase be paired with dollar-for-dollar spending cuts. Instead, it appears Republicans are looking for provisions that could garner significant GOP support, but also peel off some Democrats as well.

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), a conservative who helped craft the GOP’s debt ceiling plan a year ago, said Republicans still want to tackle entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid, but are eyeing smaller concessions on the debt limit given staunch Democratic opposition.

He said Republicans should look to replicate the success of a debt-limit package they devised at last year's retreat, which conditioned an increase in borrowing authority on the passage of budget resolutions by both chambers. That provision was accepted by the Senate and the White House, skirting a direct confrontation at the deadline.

“I think that the things that we ought to be looking at are probably those things that have been supported in a bipartisan way in both chambers,” Price said.

He added that he’s open to suggestions from his colleagues, so long as it allows Republicans to quickly get behind a plan.

“My goal is not to have a predetermined outcome, but to make sure that whatever outcome occurs, it's one that can be supported by the vast majority of our conference so that we can move forward as quickly as possible after the recess,” he said.

At their retreat, members will be presented with a menu of possible demands for raising the debt ceiling.

Items being bandied about include a provision authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline, conditions to fast-track tax reform or eliminating so-called “risk corridors” in the healthcare reform law.

The “risk corridors,” which Republicans say is a bailout of health insurers, provides subsidies to insurance companies through 2016 to offset costs they face as a result of having to provide affordable health care coverage to riskier consumers.

Going after that part of the health law seems to be gaining traction with rank-and-file members.

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), who backs pushing a framework for tax reform, told The Hill a repeal of that measure “appeals to quite a lot of us and quite possibly that is something that is doable.”

Yet any measure targeting the healthcare law may meet fierce opposition from Democrats and the White House.

And it is not a foregone conclusion that House Republicans will be able to rally around an initial debt limit demand. GOP leaders have seen several attempts to push preferred bills fall apart amid conservative complaints the plans do not go far enough.

The last time House Republicans tried to organize a party strategy over the debt limit, they failed and ended up getting blamed for a 16-day government shutdown. They were unable to garner support for a package that was a veritable GOP wish list, and included authorizing the Keystone pipeline, delaying the entirety of ObamaCare and trimming a host of regulations. Conservatives balked, saying it did not do enough on spending.

While both sides are again starting far apart, those watching the matter closely are optimistic cooler, and campaign-minded, heads will prevail.

“I just think people want to get this behind them, and they want to get into campaign season,” said Bell.