Boehner says he has a weak hand in the latest round of debt poker

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday conceded House Republicans are playing a weaker hand on the debt limit following last fall’s government shutdown.

Boehner said the GOP has few good options for extracting concessions from a White House that refuses to deal.

“The options available continue to be narrower in terms of how we address the issue of the debt ceiling, but I’m confident we’ll be able to find a way,” Boehner said at a Tuesday press conference.

Boehner’s comments are just the latest indication that party leaders are stymied in the wake of last fall’s shutdown, which voters — and more recently the Speaker himself — have blamed on the GOP.

Ahead of a November election where Republicans are confident they’ll retain the House and win back the Senate, the party is giving every indication it wants to avoid another drawn-out fight over raising the $16.7 trillion borrowing cap that could endanger its electoral hopes.

“The Speaker has a good gauge as to what’s politically doable, and what’s not,” Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.) told reporters Tuesday. “I think he’s been very clear in that we’re not going to go to brinksmanship on this, and roll the dice with the U.S. economy.”

Last fall, GOP leaders initially put together a GOP wish list in exchange for raising the debt limit. But that plan never received a vote — conservatives balked at the lack of spending cuts and preferred to focus efforts on attacking ObamaCare as part of the government shutdown fight.

In the end, Republicans agreed to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for next to nothing in terms of concessions from Obama.

With the White House yet again insisting it will not negotiate over the borrowing cap, Republicans acknowledge that outcome makes it difficult to try and ramp up demands yet again.

“Because of how that played out ... the ability to try to push for something stronger than that this time is hard,” said Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.).

Figuring out a debt-limit strategy will be a top priority when House Republicans huddle at a private retreat on the Eastern Shore of Maryland beginning Wednesday night.

But the days of demanding dollar-for-dollar spending cuts, changes to entitlement programs or a host of major Republican priorities as concessions appear to be over.

House Republicans insist a “clean” hike to the debt limit cannot pass their chamber, but are eyeing significantly smaller concessions this time around.

Some members have discussed eliminating so-called “risk corridors” in the healthcare reform law, which Republicans equate to a possible bailout of insurance companies. Others are eyeing items that could attract some Democratic support, like rolling back the medical device tax or authorizing the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

The government will bump against its debt limit on Feb. 7, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has told Congress it could begin missing payments in late February. Administration officials from Lew on down insist they will not negotiate over raising the limit, and congressional Democrats have backed them up.

Republicans have been quick to criticize the president for his rigid stance. Many GOP lawmakers said Obama was forcing Boehner’s hand by even refusing to talk about the borrowing cap.

“It’s certainly makes it difficult when you have a president that’s unwilling to discuss solutions,” said Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.).

But others still criticize GOP leaders and insist Democrats should have taken the shutdown fallout and left Republicans room to haggle.

“I would like to have a discussion other than capitulation,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who said options were reduced “by the fact that the Speaker thought we shut down the government when it was Harry Reid’s refusal to negotiate.”

Garrett noted that the president’s polling has also taken a hit following the botched rollout of ObamaCare. But given his upper hand on the last debt-limit fight, there seems to be little motivation to change.

“Even though he’s in a weaker position ... you would think that he would be amenable to at least negotiate,” he said. “I think the president learned something from his last actions.”

However, that does not mean that Republicans have to like it, or agree with it.

They insist that the debt limit should serve as a critical chance to address the nation’s long-term finances, and have a serious debate about U.S. fiscal health.

Yet they are backing away from any threats to not raise the limit if Obama doesn’t come to the negotiating table.

“I’ve got some [ideas] that are doable ... but at the end of the day, the full faith and credit of country is very important and we’ve got to take it seriously,” said Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.). “I think this conference does.”

Bernie Becker contributed.

This story was posted at 11:30 a.m. and updated at 8:35 p.m.