By Bernie Becker, Peter Schroeder and Molly K. Hooper - 10/03/13 09:30 AM EDT
House Republicans are gathering Friday to debate what their ask will be in the merging fights over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling.
While Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has indicated he won’t be dictating strategy, members are clearly looking to him for direction as the shutdown enters its fourth day.
"He's trying to work through it," said Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of GOP leadership. "He has an awful lot in his arsenal."
House Republicans are in agreement that the White House and Senate Democrats must negotiate with them on reopening the government and avoiding a potentially historic default.
"Everybody's tried to envision one, but nobody has it yet," said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), an ally of Boehner. "Honestly, I don't know what we're going to do.”
Boehner has yet to publicly signal what sort of deal he’s chasing, and lawmakers close to him say they don’t expect leadership to detail a specific plan during their conference meeting on Friday.
But those around Boehner also say he’s interested in “going big” to resolve the crisis — perhaps by striking the grand bargain that eluded him during talks with President Obama in 2011.
Boehner has quietly met with members of his conference this week, and hosted around 20 GOP lawmakers for lunch on Thursday. During that meeting, Boehner indicated he prefers reaching a big deal to avoid default and open the government.
“He’s really trying to find the pathway that not only gets the government up and running again but really allows for an opportunity to get some major things done beyond that,” a GOP lawmaker close to the Speaker told The Hill.
A separate lawmaker who attended the meeting said it appeared that Boehner wants to combine the spending bill and the debt limit, "and as long as this thing drags on, it's more and more likely that these things issues will become conflated."
House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have also expressed an interest in a big fiscal agreement, something that would likely include longtime GOP priorities like tax reform. Aides say the chairmen are reaching out to Republican rank-and-file about what a deal might entail.
One of the key questions for Republicans is how much leverage they have in the fight.
Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and other GOP leaders always preferred to make a stand on the debt ceiling, rather than on a short-term bill funding the government.
But Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have said they won’t negotiate on either one, and Boehner has made clear to Republicans that he will not allow a default.
While many rank-and-file Republicans are showing much less appetite for breaching the debt ceiling than they did in 2011, GOP lawmakers argue they have other leverage points — like sequestration — to bring Democrats to the table.
Lankford said that the two sides needed “to have a conversation” about ending brinkmanship once and for all.
“That conversation still needs to occur — how do we stop having debt ceiling increases,” Lankford said. “The only way you stop having debt ceiling increases is have a plan that’s a long-term plan to be able to slow down the growth of our spending.”
“I don’t think there’s energy in the Republican conference to have any kind of default,” he said.
Boehner is likely to face questions about reports he is willing to move a debt-limit increase with Democratic votes, if that’s what it takes to avoid default.
A spokesman for Boehner emphasized that the Speaker would only advance a debt-limit increase if accompanied by provisions that address "the drivers of our debt and deficits."
"That's why we need a bill with cuts and reforms to get our economy moving again," said spokesman Michael Steel.
On Thursday, House conservatives were resolute in their demands,
including a slew of proposals sure to meet fierce resistance from Senate
Democrats and the White House.
Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said that most Republicans would need some victory on the healthcare law and the so-called “Boehner Rule” — the exchange of one dollar in cuts or reforms for every dollar of debt limit hike — to get on board with legislation.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said he had not heard of discussions about
heavily relying on Democrats, but did not rule out reaching across the
aisle to help push a final agreement over the finish line.
"If there's an arrangement or a deal, you don't have to get 218 from one side or the other," said Cole, another Boehner ally.
In the meantime, House Republicans say they remain united, with all but two GOP lawmakers backing five separate measures to fund smaller, separate chunks of the government.
Republicans are continuing that strategy — funding targeted parts of the government to try to pressure Democrats — with 11 other bills, including proposals to fund Head Start and ensure furloughed federal employees get back pay.
And despite polls showing Republicans taking much of the blame for the shutdown, the right flank of the party show no signs of backing down.
"There's some pain and suffering, but I don't think that pain and suffering compares one bit to the pain and suffering of being stuck with a lifetime of ObamaCare," said Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.).
"That's why I'm holding pretty firm on this."