Ryan sells conservatives on plan to end shutdown, debt standoff

Anne Wernikoff

House conservatives are discussing a two-step plan outlined by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to lift the debt ceiling and reopen the government long enough for Congress to pass long-term entitlement reforms.

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Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, presented the idea Wednesday afternoon at a meeting of the conservative Republican Study Committee. Lawmakers leaving the confab said the influential group had not reached a consensus position on the debt ceiling or an end to the government shutdown.

The plan appeared to be a more detailed version of a proposal that Ryan made Wednesday in an op-ed he penned in The Wall Street Journal. He called for “modest” structural changes to Medicare and Social Security to resolve the fiscal crisis. 

The article made no mention of delaying or defunding President Obama’s healthcare law, which had been a central Republican demand leading to the government shutdown nine days ago.

Under Ryan’s plan, the initial short-term increase in the debt ceiling would not be “clean,” Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said.

“This would not be without some agreement already reached,” Fleming said. “It would only give us time to go through the order necessary to get the agreed-upon goals through a conference committee.”

“So again, I don’t think there’s any interest on the table in short-term debt ceiling increases or short-term [continuing resolutions] unless we have a deal,” he continued.

“We aren’t going to solve the long-term challenges in a week,” Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) said.

Ryan spokesman William Allison declined to comment after the meeting.

“I can’t comment on rumors or speculation,” he said. “Negotiations will begin when Democrats join the conversation.”

It is unclear whether the Ryan plan would become an official proposal from the wider House Republican conference, although Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) promoted his Wall Street Journal article in a Twitter post Wednesday.

A GOP leadership aide described the plan outlined by Ryan as one of a number of appealing options crafted by Republicans, but said it was too soon to call the Budget chairman's two-step outline the House GOP's main offer.

Instead, the aide stressed that Republicans needed Democrats to negotiate, a day before a group of House GOP leaders is scheduled to head to the White House.

Obama has vowed not to negotiate with Republicans until Congress reopens the government and raises the debt ceiling. He said Tuesday he could support a short-term measure to buy time for broader negotiations, but Boehner rejected that opening as a demand for “unconditional surrender” by Republicans.

“I don’t think we can solve the challenge that we have without the president coming to the table to negotiate,” Price said. 

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) attended the conservative meeting Wednesday, although Fleming said he did not weigh in on Ryan’s presentation.

Some committee members said they believe the initial increase should include spending cut concessions from Democrats, and others emphasized that ObamaCare needs to be part of the mix.

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Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise (R-La.) said a provision requiring members of Congress to obtain healthcare through ObamaCare without employer subsidies should be attached to a short-term increase, along with a provision requiring the Treasury Department to prioritize debt payments.

But he signaled he was open to a deal on mandatory spending that did not include the healthcare law.

“That’s not the only thing. There are a lot of items we have put on the table,” he said.

But Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said that any short-term increase in the debt ceiling would likely need to include spending cuts or reforms. He said, however, that combining the debt ceiling and government funding into one process could be wise.

“It may make more sense to avoid back-to-back financial crises in this country,” Brady said.

“I’d like to see a little more time on the debt ceiling to make sure we get it right,” he said of a short-term increase. “My assumption is that you want a first step … I’d imagine there would be something in there.”

Boehner and Cantor met earlier Wednesday with the top two House Democrats, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.).

Boehner’s office also announced that House Republicans would be sending a delegation of 18 members to the White House Thursday for a meeting with Obama. The president invited the entire conference, but the Speaker decided to send a smaller group of negotiators instead.

Some conservatives have criticized Ryan for omitting ObamaCare from his plan, and lawmakers described a healthy debate about whether the GOP needed to continue to demand changes to the law despite Democrats' refusal to consider them.

“When you’re talking about the debt ceiling, it becomes a bigger discussion than just ObamaCare,” Fleming said.

In the conservative meeting, Ryan defended deemphasizing ObamaCare, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said.

“He said he was just trying to start the conversation,” Gohmert said. 

But Gohmert said ObamaCare must be addressed in any talks.

“When you’re talking about continuing to have the largest deficits in our history, how could you not talk about the biggest deficit driver that we have ever had?” he said.

Within the conservative group, there remains considerable skepticism about the need to raise the debt ceiling, which many economists have said is necessary to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the global economy.

Lawmakers said Ryan did not make the case for the need to authorize more borrowing, and some questioned claims that a default would be inevitable without it.

“Somebody needs to convince me why we need to raise the debt ceiling,” freshman Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) said after the meeting.

— Updated at 2:44 p.m.