House GOP leaders skeptical of plan to hike debt limit in steps

House Republican leaders are throwing cold water on a proposed incremental strategy that would raise the federal debt limit two months at a time.

Noting that rank-and-file Republicans balked at a series of smaller spending cuts during the fiscal 2011 negotiations, GOP officials indicate they are unlikely to embrace a similar game plan for the debt-ceiling debate.

Some in the GOP conference have already staked their claim behind conservative activist Grover Norquist’s favored proposal to hold bimonthly votes on extending the debt limit, which would be attached to spending-cut and budget-reform concessions. Others say, however, that GOP members don’t have the “stomach” for such a plan.

House leaders learned their lesson against moving incremental stopgap-with-concessions bills during the recent fight to avert a government shutdown, according to a member of the GOP leadership.

“We’ve tried that … that was kind of the strategy on the [continuing resolution] … and the stomach got pretty upset after the first one. … Clearly, at some point our conference said, ‘We’re not doing this anymore.’ And as soon as we didn’t have those votes on our side to pass it, [Speaker John] BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerSome doubt McCarthy or Scalise will ever lead House GOP Lobbying World McCarthy courts conservatives in Speaker's bid MORE [R-Ohio] had no more negotiating room.”

The GOP lawmaker spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about the Republicans’ strategy sessions on the budget.

In an interview with The Hill in late April, Norquist — who heads the Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) group — said the incremental approach would extract more concessions on spending cuts and budgetary reform from the Obama administration.

The proposal has gained traction with some members of the conservative Republican Study Committee, who discussed it during a meeting last Monday. 

“It is the only leverage that we have over a Senate and a president that is seemingly unconcerned about the overspending,” said freshman Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), who said he would not support any bill that allows borrowing past Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. 

Norquist told The Hill that in order for the two-month-at-a-time approach to work, it must come from “the bottom up,” suggesting the freshman members must call on their leaders to pursue it.

Aside from insisting that tax increases are off the table, House GOP leaders have kept their cards close to the vest, according to Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

“I think that Boehner’s simply looking to save the most money he possibly can,” Cole said.

Cole said there is “still plenty of time” to continue hashing out differences among rank-and-file members, pointing out Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s recent announcement to push back the debt-ceiling deadline until Aug. 2. 

The Oklahoma lawmaker said Norquist’s plan was not “practicable” because it would tie Congress up for the “next 16 months.” 

Instead, Cole favors holding two or three votes on extending the debt limit. 

“This is a big issue, and if we have a couple of opportunities to extract concessions, that’s fine by me. And I think seeing what kind of progress we’re making as opposed to just voting once and putting it past the election makes a lot of sense,” the former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman explained. 

The House GOP budget calls for the debt-ceiling increase to last until October of next year, a month before the election.

Freshman Rep. Steve WomackStephen (Steve) Allen WomackCBO projects booming deficits Armed Services panel sets schedule for consideration of defense policy bill Sales tax battle moves to the Supreme Court MORE (R-Ark.) is wary of Norquist’s plan, saying it could cause headaches for Republicans who would have to explain why they voted to “raise the debt ceiling seven or eight times.” 

ATR is not backing off, however. An aide close to Norquist claimed that “support is building” for the plan.