By Russell Berman and Erik Wasson - 07/19/11 12:26 AM EDT
With House Republicans leery of a backup debt plan that is gaining steam in the Senate, GOP leaders are pushing ahead with White House talks aimed at striking a deficit-reduction deal that can pass Congress.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) returned to the White House on Sunday for a secret meeting with President Obama, cognizant that many of their rank-and-file members believe the plan offered by Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) represents an unacceptable abdication of congressional authority to the president.
“I’m not in favor of making the president the debt-ceiling czar,” freshman Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), an original sponsor of the “Cut, Cap and Balance” legislation that the House considered on Tuesday, said in an interview.
Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, also sharply criticized the McConnell proposal.
“This is just kicking the can down the road. It’s what the American people are so angry about,” he said Monday on MSNBC.
Boehner has not ruled out the McConnell plan, calling it a “last-ditch” proposal worthy of consideration.
In interviews over the last week, several House Republicans said they wanted their leadership to pursue a “big deal,” although they said they remained resolutely opposed to net tax increases.
Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.), a freshman opposed to the McConnell plan, said people “would be surprised at the number of conservatives who are looking for a solution.” He said he could support a “grand bargain” negotiated by the Speaker — “but it’s got to be the right package.”
The intensifying debt crisis played out on parallel fronts Monday.
Publicly, Republicans and the White House jousted over the GOP “Cut, Cap and Balance” bill, which would combine immediate cuts with a cap on annual spending while conditioning an increase in the debt limit on congressional passage of a strict balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. The Obama administration threatened a presidential veto and derided the legislation as a “duck, dodge and dismantle” plan even more extreme than the House Republican budget. Republicans challenged Obama to present his own plan and detail what cuts he would accept in a debt deal.
Amid the public posturing, negotiations continued behind the scenes, though officials remained notably tight-lipped about the private talks. White House press secretary Jay Carney refused to provide details of the Sunday meeting, and a spokesman for Boehner, Kevin Smith, would say only that “the lines of communication are being kept open.”
“There is nothing to report in terms of an agreement or progress,” he said.
Cantor kept silent as well, days after he offered reporters a blow-by-blow of a White House meeting that ended with Obama “abruptly” walking out. Cantor scrapped his weekly briefing with reporters due to what his spokeswoman said were “scheduling conflicts.”
Opposition from Cantor and other conservatives led Boehner to back off a “grand bargain” he was pursuing with Obama, but the Speaker has said in recent days that he continues to favor “the big deal.”
McConnell’s proposal, which is currently being negotiated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), would likely lock in about $1.5 trillion in spending cuts while allowing the president to authorize additional federal borrowing through the 2012 election. Those spending cuts would fall far below the ratio of cuts that Boehner has demanded in exchange for a $2.4 trillion increase in the debt limit through next year.
Aides said Republicans wanted to keep the focus on the “Cut, Cap and Balance” proposal, which budget-watchers in both parties say could allow conservative members to support an eventual compromise.
“‘Cut, Cap and Balance’ allows Republicans to show what they stand for and provides them cover to support a legitimate deal because the United States Senate will not be able to pass it,” said Ron Bonjean, a former top strategist to former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and chief of staff to the Senate Republican Conference.
A GOP aide said that leadership appeared to be using the “Cut, Cap and Balance” vote to set up a compromise.
“My read is that this is letting everyone vote the way they want to as a basis to move forward,” the aide said. “I believe there’s a thought running on the floor that we might force the Dems to come up with the votes for McConnell-Reid and then just find some moderates in our party to join them.”
Democrats have been pushing Republicans to reconsider a “grand bargain,” and one House Democratic leadership aide said the party viewed the GOP “Cut, Cap and Balance” vote as a way for Republican leaders to narrow the options for their members.
“They’re trying to get their members” to a deal, the Democratic aide said, equating the strategy to “potty-training” for Republican freshmen.
“You diminish the paths,” the aide said. “Eventually you have to pick one, if the McConnell plan is so objectionable.”
But another GOP aide was skeptical that the McConnell plan would make an attempted Boehner-Obama deal of spending cuts and revenue increases any more palatable.
“I remained unconvinced higher taxes can pass the House,” the aide said.
Republican lawmakers and aides said House conservatives were still smarting over a compromise on 2011 spending in April, when the Congressional Budget Office reported that the actual reduction in spending outlays, $352 million, was much smaller than the $38 billion cut in budget authority on which lawmakers had been sold.
Molly K. Hooper contributed.