House GOP to decide debt-ceiling strategy at its annual retreat

House Republican leaders are weighing several options for legislation that would combine an increase in the debt ceiling with cuts to federal spending. 

The ideas under discussion range from a stopgap increase in the borrowing limit for only a few months to a larger bill that would raise the debt ceiling for the duration of President Obama’s second term. 

Party leaders hope the rank and file will coalesce around a strategy at the annual House GOP retreat, which begins Wednesday in Williamsburg, Va.

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A top goal for the three-day conference, lawmakers and aides said, is to emerge with some semblance of a plan for addressing the debt ceiling, the automatic spending cuts of sequestration and the government funding that runs out at the end of March. GOP leaders will also try to rally their members around a broader legislative agenda for the next two years, and discussions of both immigration reform and gun control are expected.

“We need to have a plan that unifies us going forward and a clear-cut strategy of what this next year, two years will look like,” Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.) said. “I think unity’s a big part of it, but you have to have a plan to unify around. So that’s the overarching goal.”

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said the House will pass legislation to address all three fiscal deadlines, but what form that effort will take remains unclear. Republicans could deal with each of the issues separately, or attempt to address them all in one giant package. 

Among the options discussed at a leadership summit on Sunday and Monday, aides said, were increases in the debt ceiling that would cover the government’s debt for a few months, as well as larger measures that would last one, two or even four years. 

Any bill is likely to adhere to Boehner’s principle that any increase in the debt ceiling be accompanied by spending cuts and reforms of an equal or greater amount, meaning a two- or four-year hike would come with significant spending cuts and entitlement reforms.

One leadership aide said, however, that a short-term “clean” increase in the debt ceiling to buy time and demonstrate good will has not been ruled out.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has informed Boehner that the nation hit the $16.4 trillion borrowing limit at the end of 2012 and that the department would run out of options for meeting the nation’s obligations sometime between mid-February and the beginning of March.

Highlighting the bind that the two parties are in, the Fitch ratings agency on Tuesday warned that a failure to raise the debt ceiling and achieve a “credible medium-term deficit-reduction plan” could result in a downgrade later this year.

The retreat comes as congressional Republicans face mounting pressure from Obama and some in their own party to steer clear of an all-out clash over the debt ceiling, for fear that a first-ever default could rattle financial markets and plunge the economy back into recession.

The president has vowed not to negotiate over the debt ceiling, arguing an increase in the borrowing limit merely allows the government to pay its bills.

Some Republicans have urged the party to look elsewhere to achieve spending cuts. Boehner himself suggested to The Wall Street Journal last week that sequestration — which will trigger $85 billion in across-the-board cuts to defense and domestic programs in 2013 — would provide more leverage for Republicans.

Yet in the face of Obama’s rhetoric, both Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have reiterated in recent days that spending cuts must accompany a debt-limit increase.

“It’s time for President Obama to stop putting our credit rating at risk and acknowledge we need a credible deficit-reduction plan attached to any increase in the debt limit,” Cantor said.

Boehner’s more immediate challenge, however, is getting support from his fractious conference. After suffering significant Republican defections in the final stages of the “fiscal cliff” fight, and then losing 12 GOP votes in his reelection bid, the Speaker has returned to emphasizing the party’s minority status in Washington, notwithstanding its majority in the House.

“Democrats are the majority party in Washington, and their policies are hurting middle-class families and small businesses and jeopardizing our children’s future,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “Republicans will offer better solutions and do everything in our power to protect families and small businesses from the harmful policies of the Democrats running Washington. The leaders had a good discussion over the weekend about the new Congress, and they look forward to listening to our members at our retreat later this week.”

Asked what the party needed to achieve at its retreat, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) offered a one-word response: “Unity.” 

Other members said they looked forward to hearing the leadership’s ideas for the fiscal fights ahead, and several said they couldn’t say whether they preferred a short- or a long-term increase in the debt ceiling.

“All I know is it shouldn’t be a clean debt-ceiling increase. It’s got to have spending cuts tied with it,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said. He added that voting for a debt-ceiling increase every few months “is not something I’d want to do.”

Obama’s aggressive rhetoric on the issue hadn’t helped matters, other Republicans said. 

“The challenge we face is trying to do business with this president when he thinks that one round of golf covers two years’ worth of negotiations,” second-term Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said.

— Molly K. Hooper contributed.


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