The ice breaks; fiscal talks set

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President Obama and congressional Republicans have finally decided it’s time to talk. [WATCH VIDEO]

Obama will meet with 18 House Republicans at the White House on Thursday as leaders of both parties intensify their efforts to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling by Oct. 17.

Among the participants will be the House GOP’s budget chief, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), who on Wednesday tried to sell conservatives on a two-step plan to hike the debt limit and reopen the government long enough for Congress to pass entitlement reforms.

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Ryan’s proposals came a day after Obama suggested he was open to a short-term deal, giving the back and forth at least the sense of a negotiation.

Ryan made his presentation at a meeting of the conservative Republican Study Committee, expanding on ideas he presented Wednesday in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Conservatives said they had not coalesced around a plan, but Ryan’s re-emergence signaled an increasing urgency among Republicans to resolve a crisis that is increasingly hurting the party’s standing with the public.

A Gallup survey released Wednesday found that the favorability rating of the Republican Party had sunk to 28 percent, the lowest measure for a party in the history of the poll.

The Ryan proposal also signaled a shift away from a focus on dismantling Obama’s healthcare reform law, which Republicans had made a central demand for keeping the government open in September. 

Some Tea Party leaders decried the move, but taking ObamaCare out of the equation could create space for striking a deal in policy areas where Democrats have negotiated in the past.

Lawmakers who heard Ryan’s presentation said the plan would end the shutdown and lift the debt ceiling for about six weeks in exchange for an agreement to make structural changes to Medicare and Social Security. The House and Senate would then have a month and a half to finalize a long-term budget plan and write legislation implementing entitlement reforms.

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 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.”

In the Journal op-ed, Ryan argued for trading “modest” cuts in mandatory spending for eliminating all or part of the sequestration cuts to discretionary spending.

Obama has vowed not to negotiate with Republicans until Congress re-opens the government and raises the debt ceiling. On Tuesday, Obama said he could support a short-term measure to buy time for broader negotiations, but Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) rejected that opening as a demand for the GOP’s “unconditional surrender.”

Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) met on Wednesday with the top two House Democrats, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.).

The Speaker wouldn’t comment after the meeting, but Pelosi indicated there were no breakthroughs, and the two leaders could not even agree on who requested the meeting. “We were disappointed the Speaker did not take ‘yes’ for an answer,” Pelosi said in a statement.

Obama met with the entire House Democratic Caucus, and aides said he planned to invite all four party caucuses in the House and the Senate to the White House before the week was out.

But those invitations brought more bickering.

While the president wanted to speak to the entire House Republican Conference on Thursday, Boehner decided to send only a smaller team of negotiators, made up mostly of party leaders and committee chairmen.

“Nine days into a government shutdown and a week away from breaching the debt ceiling, a meeting is only worthwhile if it is focused on finding a solution,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said. 

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama was “disappointed that Speaker Boehner is preventing his members from coming to the White House.”

The full House GOP Conference plans to meet in the Capitol before the White House meeting, and Ryan’s proposal is likely to come up.

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.

Conservatives on Wednesday were still debating Ryan’s push to extract concessions from Democrats on entitlements rather than on ObamaCare.

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

Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), a former RSC chairman, stressed that it was important to keep healthcare center stage.

“ObamaCare is certainly still part of the [funding] debate, and I think it’s going to remain part of the overall debate regardless of how the debt ceiling’s done and when it’s done,” Jordan said.

In the conservative meeting, Ryan defended his choice to downplay ObamaCare, according to Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).

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

Bernie Becker contributed.