House Republicans might call for vote on ‘clean’ hike to borrowing limit

House Republicans may hold a “clean” debt-ceiling vote this fall to prove to President Obama that it lacks the support to pass Congress.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) played that card in 2011 before the parties negotiated the Budget Control Act. At that time, the House voted overwhelmingly to oppose a clean debt-limit increase. The final tally was 318-97, as 82 Democrats joined every Republican in rejecting the bill. Seven Democrats voted “present.”

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“I see no reason not to do it that way” if Boehner feels that it would strengthen his negotiating position, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said in an interview with The Hill.

The former National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) chairman noted, however, that he did not know whether decisions have been made on a debt-limit strategy: “We had a conference on this early ... and we’ve not heard anything since the conference and there were a lot of ideas put on the table.”

Fellow GOP Rep. Tim Griffin (Ark.) said it “wouldn’t surprise” him if Boehner opted to hold an up-or-down vote on a clean debt-ceiling increase, cautioning that House Republicans “haven’t had those conversations yet.”

When asked in late July whether the House GOP would hold a vote on the debt limit increase, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told his Democratic counterpart, Steny Hoyer (Md.), that it would not happen in September. Cantor did not reveal any more in that back and forth on the House floor.

In recent years, Republicans have pressed for spending cuts and reforms in exchange for a hike to the debt limit.

Obama has called on Congress to raise the debt ceiling without conditions to cut spending, repeatedly stressing he will not negotiate on the issue like he did in 2011.

“The president, having negotiated the last time, can’t say, ‘Well, I’m never doing it again,” Cole said.

But Republicans don’t appear to have a detailed plan on the budgetary battles facing them when they return from their five-week August recess. For example, they haven’t coalesced on what exactly to ask for in the debt-limit debate, which will likely heat up in October.

Meanwhile, the House must figure out the timing of tackling immigration reform on the floor. Boehner said the House would act on the hot-button issue in a piecemeal approach, noting his conference’s opposition to the comprehensive Gang of Eight immigration bill passed by the Senate.

Yet, House Republicans will likely attract criticism from Democrats if they call for a vote on a clean debt increase but refuse to do the same on the Senate immigration measure.

Earlier this month, Obama basically dared Boehner to hold an up-or-down vote on the immigration bill.

“I am absolutely confident if that bill was on the floor of the House, it would pass,” Obama said Aug. 9.

Even though he believes that Obama doesn’t have the votes, Cole conceded that Boehner “might” feel some pressure to hold a roll call on the Senate bill if a clean debt vote is scheduled. Cole, who serves on the leadership team as a deputy whip, believes that immigration should be dealt with after the budget battles are resolved.

Claremont McKenna College professor of political science Jack Pitney said Boehner will have some “big asks” of his fractious conference in the fall, adding he is more likely to spend political capital on avoiding a government shutdown and preventing a default.

“Boehner understands this better than anyone: Don’t default and don’t shut down the government because those are the only two things that could jeopardize the Republican majority,” Pitney said.

A Democratic operative told The Hill that Republicans can’t come up with a cogent strategy to raise the debt limit because they are still trying to undo the damage caused by the Budget Control Act's across-the-board $1.2 trillion in cuts over 10 years.

“They are smelling the coffee on [the debt ceiling]. They are taking an ambiguous stand on that now to see how the stars line up in the fall. But at the same time, they know they don’t have a clear path and a clean way of debating the debt ceiling, which will cause a whole bunch of complications that will recall everybody’s memory to what happened in 2011. I would think the Republicans would not want to go down that path going into the midterm elections,” former Democratic National Committee official David Mercer said.

House Republicans will have nine legislative days in September to prevent a government shutdown and avoid government default on the national debt. The lower chamber is scheduled to go into recess the week of Sept. 24. The optics of that recess could be harmful to the GOP, especially if the parties are not close to reaching a deal on funding the government. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

Members on both sides of the aisle recognize how important this fall will be.

Before heading home for the August recess, GOP Rep. Marlin Stutzman (Ind.) told The Hill, “It’s going to get wild and crazy come September and October.”