By Russell Berman and Bernie Becker - 02/04/14 10:51 AM EST
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday said it wasn’t yet clear whether House Republicans could get enough of a consensus to pass an increase in the debt ceiling without help from Democrats.
GOP leaders are searching for a policy provision that can gain 217 Republican votes so they can send a bill to the Senate in advance of the late February deadline set by the Treasury Department to avert a default. If the House cannot pass its own bill, it is likely Republicans will have to accept a clean debt ceiling increase from the Senate – an outcome the party wants to avoid.
Conservatives are pushing to repeal the “risk corridors” provision in the healthcare law, which they say could amount to a bailout of insurance companies. Others are pushing to attach a rider calling for approval of the Keystone pipeline following a favorable environmental study from the State Department report.
“Listen, the goal here is to increase the debt ceiling. No one wants to default on our debt,” Boehner said. “But while we’re doing this, we should do something either about jobs and the economy, about the drivers of our debt, and so we’re talking to our members, and when we have a decision, we’ll let you know.”
He said there were “a lot of opinions about how to deal with the debt limit. No decisions have been made.”
Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), said there is no plan to tie the Keystone XL pipeline to the debt ceiling until the 90-day interagency review weighing the national interest of the project is finished by the State Department.
"I can say from the House side there is no discussion about attaching or moving anything until 90 days is up," Terry said at a Keystone XL press conference on Tuesday.
"Anything is possible but there are no discussions occurring."
Another option floated by House GOP doctors was to attach a bipartisan, 10-year fix to the Medicare provider payments, the so-called “doc fix.”
“It should be a bipartisan kind of thing. Everyone wants that fixed,” said one proponent of the idea, Rep. John Fleming (R-La.). “It’s in the mix.”
Democrats have warned Republicans against trying to attach any contentious policy proposals to the debt limit, saying it would risk default.
"It's a dead-end political tactic," Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said of the GOP search for something to attach. "In the end, they're going to have to put a clean debt ceiling bill on the floor."
Welch said the risk corridors and Keystone were "legitimate issues, but not as a condition for paying our bills."
GOP lawmakers exiting the meeting said that the conference still had a ways to go to reach consensus about their debt-limit negotiations, even as Republicans consistently named Keystone and the risk corridors as potential central planks in a GOP bill.
House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said that it was “premature to speculate” on whether the GOP would move a clean debt-limit increase, as demanded by President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“I think we’re moving toward a consensus on how to proceed, and we’ll let you know when we have one,” Ryan told reporters.
House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said that the GOP still had time to hash out a strategy, and didn’t necessarily have to act before the end of next week – when lawmakers are scheduled to leave Washington for a week.
“I think one of the reasons we’re talking about this early is to deal with the issue sooner rather than later,” said Camp, whose committee has jurisdiction over the debt limit.
But other Republicans said that Boehner and other GOP leaders were intent on moving before the Senate, to try to give themselves as much say as possible in negotiations where Democrats admittedly have the upper hand.
Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) said Boehner wanted to get the debt ceiling out of the way quickly, so that the GOP conference could pivot to its more positive election-year agenda.
“I think the Speaker would like to move, and move as quickly as possible -- because, realistically, this is the last cliff that we’re facing. If we can get this out of the way, then it gives us more smooth sailing to promote our agenda,” said Boustany, a senior Ways and Means member.
It’s also clear that some members of the GOP rank-and-file remain sour after the last big fiscal showdown in October, in which Republicans took the political blame for shutting the government down for more than two weeks.
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) suggested Republicans gave up any leverage they might have had by throwing in the towel last year.
“I think the American people don’t want any more gimmicks from us. I think we should just be honest with the American people that Harry Reid and Barack Obama do not want to negotiate on the debt ceiling,” Labrador said Tuesday. “And let Democrats own it. Let them pass it.”
Labrador added that, while he supported all the ideas being bandied about by Republicans – risk corridors, Keystone and even a balanced budget amendment – he was unsure whether he would back a debt limit package that included those provisions.
“They’re all great ideas,” he said. “The problem is that we know that none of them are going to pass.”
This story was last updated at 1:19 p.m.