Rank and file tell GOP leaders to keep sequester, shutdown 'on the table'

WILLIAMSBURG, VA. — GOP leaders on Thursday heard from rank-and-file members in a closed-door session, with many urging sequester cuts or a government shutdown to take effect in hopes of forcing the White House into accepting spending cuts.

Those options are “very much on the table,” veteran Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told reporters on Thursday, from Virginia, where House GOP lawmakers are meeting for their annual retreat.

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According to several sources, during the members-only brainstorming session, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) delivered “concise” remarks before opening the microphones to member feedback.

Despite recent internal House GOP squabbles over the handling of the “fiscal cliff” negotiations and a handful of defections against Boehner in the vote for Speaker, GOP lawmakers are looking to present a unified front ahead of crucial budget battles.

One lawmaker who was in the room said that members who spoke had been “polite.”

The discussion has been “open and free-wheeling,” a GOP source in the room added.

Nearly 70 members lined up to share their thoughts on strategies to deal with the trifecta of fiscal deadlines awaiting Congress and the White House. GOP staffers were kicked out of the discussion.

Members were eager to share their views with leadership, and the two-hour morning session had to be extended to the afternoon so that all lawmakers could speak.

So many members waited patiently in line during the two-hour morning session that House GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) wrote down the order of lawmakers in line so they could resume their places after a luncheon featuring Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R).

Members floated a broad range of ideas for leadership to consider as they hope to force spending cuts or entitlement reform.

Twenty-five lawmakers spoke in the morning session, floating ideas including not replacing the looming $1.2 trillion in sequestration cuts taking effect in March, allowing the government to shut down or allowing Treasury to default.

Cole said there was much discussion about “whether sequester is a better way to do this because there's clearly elements that we don't like in sequester, but I would tell you that the majority of our conference is quite prepared to go there if they don't see something else.”

“They want to do something dramatic,” he added.

Boehner mentioned that possibility himself in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, in which the Speaker said he had sequestration “in his back pocket.”

Republicans also fear they will encounter a similar situation to the recent fiscal cliff stand-off, in which the Senate fails to act on House-passed bills and the president waits until the last moment to become engaged with Congress.

The goal of the battles to come, as one high-ranking GOP leadership aide explained to The Hill, “is to force a process where the House acts, the Senate acts and the two bodies work it out.”

Influential GOP lawmakers such as former vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) say that the House wants to “force” the Senate to act independently on extending the debt limit, rearranging the sequestered cuts and extending current government funding, but many lawmakers and aides concede privately that it will be difficult to do so.

Ryan, the Budget Committee chairman, and Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) joined Boehner and Cantor in making brief presentations at a 10:00 am session titled “The Next 90 Days” to the 200-plus members gathered at Kingsmill resort for their annual issues retreat, before opening the floor for discussion.

“The four of them really outlined the reality of what the next 90 days looks like, then they were listening to the input from dozens of members with a couple hundred ideas – hopefully they can shift that into a coherent strategy,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told The Hill.

Chaffetz told his colleagues that he favored passing a balanced budget amendment, “if the president wants to pass a debt-ceiling increase.”

Leaders will cull the GOP rank-and-file ideas, given the expedited time line, and will likely come back to their members with a plan in the next week.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner warned lawmakers earlier this week that the Treasury could default on its payments as early as mid-February.

But the open discussion highlighted the challenge for leadership, which is looking to present a united front in budget talks while managing expectations from a diverse group of GOP lawmakers itching to cut spending.

But as one-half of one-third of the government, the House GOP majority has the power to block the president but less influence on pushing their own initiatives. One GOP leadership aide described their situation as being a quasi-super minority.