House GOP leaders believe their laundry list of demands for raising the debt ceiling will gain broad support among Republicans, despite pockets of grumbling among conservatives that the plan doesn’t cut enough spending.
And while Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) laid out a hard line on funding the government — just days before a government shutdown — it also remained clear that leaders believe that they have more leverage in debt-ceiling negotiations.
Boehner defended the debt package on Thursday against complaints from conservatives that the plan doesn't do nearly enough on the spending side. Boehner’s original rule on the debt limit demanded equal or greater cuts than a debt-ceiling hike.
“In this bill, we have spending cuts and we have issues that will help spur more economic growth. We think the balance is correct,” he said.
Boehner told members in Thursday's conference meeting that because all the elements have already been voted on by the House, a three day layover requirement can be waived and a vote could come Friday.
The GOP whip team was first going to ensure the package has the votes needed to pass before a vote is scheduled. If every Democrat voted against the bill, which is likely, Republicans could afford only 16 defections.
Illustrating the leadership's challenge in winning Republican votes, a member of the GOP's whip team, Rep. Tom Rooney (Fla.), said he was leaning against the debt-ceiling plan because it did not seriously tackle entitlement reform.
"The problem for me is it doesn't address the debt," Rooney told The Hill.
He questioned how he could defend raising the $16.7 trillion debt limit without following through on the reforms Republicans proposed in their budget the past three years.
"How can I possibly justify that?" Rooney asked.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said the debt-ceiling bill would go on Thursday to the Rules Committee, which he chairs, setting up a floor vote as early as Saturday.
“We’re going to get it to the floor, and I’m very confident our membership will support not just this great package for the American people, but a package to work with the Senate on issues and ideas that will encourage job creation, job growth and help our country.”
Sessions said the leadership waited to release the debt-limit package so they could first begin to sell it to the members.
“I have a really good feeling about where we are right now,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who has been advocating for using the debt ceiling rather than the continuing resolution to fight a fiscal battle.
The Treasury Department this week said Congress should raise the debt ceiling by Oct. 17 to ensure the government can pay its bills.
Republicans have, for more than a week, discussed a plan that would allow a year-long increase in the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling in exchange for a list of priorities, many of which are non-starters among Democrats and President Obama.
To bolster leadership’s argument, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, released a study arguing that concentrating on growing the economy would play a key role in getting America’s books in order.
The GOP’s wish list includes approval of the long-stalled Keystone XL oil pipeline, instructions for tax reform and a one-year delay of Obama’s healthcare law.
House Republicans had defunded ObamaCare in a short-term spending measure they passed last week, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is expected to strip that language out and send a continuing resolution back to the House.
Top Republicans have said for days that they wouldn’t be able to demand as much on the spending side, in large part because the 2011 debt-ceiling deal made large cuts to discretionary spending.
The House leadership plan, according to a copy circulated on Wednesday, also seeks to roll back a number of federal regulations, increase energy production both onshore and offshore and take aim at the Dodd-Frank overhaul of the financial system.
Many members of the rank and file predicted that the conference would unite around the leadership plan, and that Republicans wouldn’t need Democratic votes to muscle through a debt-limit increase.
"Leadership reassured everybody that if you calculate the growth that is generated by some of the reforms, it's still sort of, you know, in the vein of the 'Boehner Rule' area of reforms and cuts equal to or greater than," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).
GOP lawmakers added coming out of Thursday's meeting that they thought the conference would unite around the debt-ceiling plan, and argued that Obama’s current position — that he wouldn’t negotiate over the debt ceiling — was untenable.
Republicans cited polling that voters believed that fiscal reforms should be part of any debt-ceiling deal. Obama has said that he won’t negotiate over the debt ceiling because its impact on the economy would be so devastating, and most economists believe that the effects of a default would be far worse than a government shutdown.
“I think you can get 218 votes on it. There wasn’t really any kind of pushback,” Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said.
But some on the conference’s right flank said the plan laid out by leadership, which includes some modest changes to Medicare and Medicaid, basically gave up the fight on spending.
“We’ve got to stop this unsustainable debt. We’ve got to get this country back on the right course and live within our means, and we’re not doing that,” said Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), who called himself a strong "no" on the plan.
“There aren’t any spending cuts, that I’ve seen,” added Broun, who, like Kingston, is currently running for Senate.
Other conservatives were clearly skeptical — especially given Boehner’s previous demands — even as they stopped short of coming out against the plan.
"I'm always looking for more spending cuts," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). "It takes a lot to satisfy me on cutting spending."
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said that concern from conservatives went beyond just the reinterpretation of the Boehner rule. The leadership plan, he said, also reneged on the GOP agreement earlier this year that their opening debt-limit offer would be a budget that balances within 10 years.
“It’s not tongue-in-cheek, but I believe there’s at least 18,” Huelskamp told reporters when asked how many Republicans shared his concerns. “But they’re whipping right now.”
House Democrats, meanwhile, are wondering how legislation raising the debt limit can get through the Republican-controlled House in any form.
Rep. Rob Andrews (N.J.), who heads the Democrats Steering and Policy Committee, noted this week that, without Democratic support, it would take fewer than 20 GOP defections to sink a debt-limit proposal. He predicted that pressure from the right — combined with reelection considerations — would cause at least that many to buck Republican leaders and oppose such a bill.
"A vote to extend the debt ceiling is toxic in a Republican primary no matter what you attach to it," Andrews said. "I just don't see how they get this through."
— Erik Wasson and Mike Lillis contributed.
This story was last updated at 2:05 p.m.