Republicans count votes on tying debt hike to healthcare law

House Republican leaders are canvassing their members to see whether they have enough votes to pass an increase in the debt ceiling that is tied to a repeal of the “risk corridors” provision in ObamaCare.

The party on Tuesday held its second private session in the last week devoted to finding a plan to raise the debt limit by the late-February deadline set by the Treasury Department.

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Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his lieutenants want a proposal that can pass without relying on Democratic votes, and aides said Tuesday afternoon that a surgical strike on the healthcare law appeared to be winning out over a competing idea to call for the approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

But even Boehner said after his meeting with members that he was unsure if his conference could rally around a single proposal.

“We’ll see,” he told reporters during a press conference.

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 in the wake of a favorable environmental study from the State Department.

But the most startling development is the lack of a fight from some of the conference’s most ardent spending hawks, who helped carry Republicans into the majority in 2010 in part by pledging to oppose increases to the nation’s borrowing limit.

Boehner has been lowering expectations for a debt showdown for weeks, and several conservatives said Tuesday they were resigned to the approval of a clean increase, even if it passed with mostly Democratic votes.

“A clean debt-ceiling [bill] would not garner my vote, but if the House leadership chooses to go that route and believes that’s in the best interests of the country and they don’t need my vote to accomplish that, I’m OK with that,” Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said.

President Obama has repeated his vow not to negotiate over the debt ceiling, and Senate Democrats have warned House Republicans they will strip out any objectionable policy additions.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday warned Republicans not to “play games” with the debt ceiling. 

“We can’t again have to worry about hostage takers, and that’s what they want,” he told reporters. “We’re not going to pay ransom for a bill that Republicans supported for decades.”

In the closed-door meeting on Tuesday, Boehner urged his conference to coalesce around a plan and cautioned that if it did not, Senate Democrats could send back a bill before the deadline with their own policy priorities attached, such as an extension of unemployment insurance, according to people in the room.

Four months after a government shutdown and near-default damaged the GOP in public polling, conservatives say they want to dispense with the debt ceiling quickly and turn the focus back to ObamaCare and the rest of their 2014 agenda.

“There is an understanding by conservatives in light of history and the trajectory that we’re on right now, that you cannot make all the demands that we would like to make,” conservative Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) said of the debt ceiling.

Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) said the leadership should skip the legislative volleying with the Senate and simply pass a clean debt-ceiling bill now.

“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.”

Garrett said he was weighing that argument but that supporting a repeal of the risk corridors first could force vulnerable Senate Democrats to take a tough vote.

House GOP leaders do not want to put up a clean debt-limit bill first, in part, because while it might pass with nearly unanimous Democratic support, it would force a few dozen Republicans to take their own politically difficult vote.

 “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.”

The House is set to take a nearly two-week recess beginning Feb. 12, and aides said the leadership hoped to act by then but had no definite timetable.

The risk corridors in the healthcare law are a kind of insurance policy for insurers, providing payments to companies saddled with higher-than-expected costs if they enroll a greater proportion of sick people than expected.

If money in an insurer-funded pool runs out, the government would step in to reimburse insurers — an outcome Republicans equate to a bailout.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office on Tuesday said the three-year risk corridor program would earn the government $8 billion in revenue, but a GOP leadership aide said that finding was unlikely to have an impact on their legislative strategy.

Erik Wasson contributed to this report.