House hopes to move own debt plan, but may not have the votes

Greg Nash

House Republicans said they hoped to vote Tuesday on a new fiscal plan, but doubts immediately sprouted up over whether they can muster the votes to pass it. 

The new House GOP plan would modify an emerging Senate fiscal deal that would end the government shutdown, fund the government through Jan. 15 and raise the debt ceiling until Feb. 7. 

It would do so by delaying ObamaCare’s medical device tax for two years and scrapping the law's tax subsidies for members of Congress and top Cabinet officials, lawmakers and aides said.

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Republican leaders presented the plan to House members with just two days to go before a Treasury Department deadline for lifting the nation’s borrowing limit and avoiding a potentially catastrophic default on the nation's debts.

Senior House Republicans had hoped to jump out in front of the Senate plan, but a two-hour, closed-door Republican conference meeting that began with a collective rendition of “Amazing Grace” ended without consensus, and lawmakers said conservatives were demanding changes to the plan.

“There are a lot of opinions about which direction to go, and there have been no decisions about what exactly we will do,” Boehner told reporters after the meeting. “We’re going to continue work with our members on both sides of the aisle to try to make sure that there is no issue of default and to get our government reopened.”

Democrats and the White House immediately panned the proposal, meaning that Republicans would need to find most — if not all — of the 217 votes needed for passage on their own.

“It’s unproductive and a waste of time,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “The House legislation will not pass the Senate.”

The Speaker reiterated that he wanted to avert a first-ever default.

“I have made clear for months and months that the idea of default is wrong, and we shouldn’t get anywhere close to it,” Boehner said. “We’re talking with our members on both sides of the aisle to try to find a way forward today.”

Boehner’s proposal was the third debt-ceiling plan his leadership team has presented to rank-and-file members in the last month, and conservatives have threatened to torpedo each one.

Party leaders acknowledged that changes would likely be needed if the plan stood a chance of passage on the floor.

“There is a way forward. We’re just going to have to keep working at it,” the fourth-ranking House Republican, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), told The Hill.

Some conservatives said they wanted the bill also to strip subsidies from congressional staffers who must enroll in ObamaCare.

Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.) said that leadership and the conservatives were “not that far apart,” and that the main tweak involved eliminating the subsidies for staff. 

He said his sense was that if that language was included, the bill would get more support. 

But a GOP aide said some members had voiced concerns about stripping healthcare subsidies for lawmakers but not for Capitol Hill staff and that some had asked questions about which executive branch officials the provision would apply to.

A spokeswoman for the White House said the latest House GOP proposal was a nonstarter.

“The president has said repeatedly that members of Congress don’t get to demand ransom for fulfilling their basic responsibilities to pass a budget and pay the nation’s bills,” Amy Brundage said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the latest proposal from House Republicans does just that in a partisan attempt to appease a small group of Tea Party Republicans who forced the government shutdown in the first place.”

"Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have been working in a bipartisan, good-faith effort to end the manufactured crises that have already harmed American families and business owners. With only a couple days remaining until the United States exhausts its borrowing authority, it’s time for the House to do the same,” she said.

The Treasury Department has warned it will only have $30 billion on hand as of Thursday and will be unable to pay all of the nation's bills without more borrowing.

House Democratic leaders are set to attend a White House meeting on the debt and shutdown talks at 3:15 p.m.

The House GOP plan, focusing on tweaking rather dismantling the healthcare law, represented a stark narrowing of the party's demands for raising the debt ceiling and reopening the government. 

And there was little doubt that Boehner was making a final attempt to assert a House position before the GOP majority is forced to accept a Senate agreement, in a scenario that would be reminiscent of the conclusion of previous fights over the fiscal cliff and a payroll tax cut.

"The House is determined to make sure there's no default," Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the chief deputy whip, said.

Inside the meeting, Boehner warned members that because of the limited time left before the default deadline, the Senate could jam the House with its agreement. As such, the House had to make a realistic counteroffer.

"His point was tactical," Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said. "This is really the closest thing to what they are offering that we could offer, that we might be satisfied with."

"There wasn't anybody who wanted a clean [continuing resolution] who spoke against it," Fleming said. "The only people who spoke against were those who wanted more."

Members said they want a firm Feb. 7 debt-ceiling deadline in part to avoid another brush with default close to the November 2014 elections.

"I don't think anybody wants that," Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) said. "I think we want to retain as much leverage as we can to get to the next step which is real deficit reduction."

Fleming said that Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) presentation to the conference was about how controlling the debt-ceiling deadline would be crucial to getting a deficit bargain out of a budget conference committee.

Another change to the Senate bill included in the new House GOP plan would eliminate a provision granted to unions that delays a tax on reinsurance that labor says would fall heavily on its members.

Under the healthcare reform law, states are required to set up a transitional reinsurance program aimed at stabilizing premiums. As part of that transition, companies providing healthcare will be required to pay $63 per covered person in 2014, as well as lower fees the following two years.

It would also delay the tax on medical devices in the healthcare law. Reid has pushed aggressively to prevent any delay or repeal of that tax in a deal, according to Senate aides, though many senators oppose the tax.

In the middle of the House Republican meeting, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) ordered all staff members to leave the room so lawmakers could speak only to each other. He then stood up to complain about the provision — an idea floated by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) — that would strip healthcare subsidies for members of Congress, according to two Republicans with knowledge of his remarks.

Barton spokesman Sean Brown said the congressman denied complaining about the subsidy issue and called the claims "a flat lie." 

"Mr. Barton doesn’t want to say publicly what he did address because the whole reason he asked staffers to leave was so that members could have a frank discussion about the current leadership proposal," Brown said. "He says he did not mention health benefits or the Vitter amendment during his time at the microphone."

Erik Wasson, Bernie Becker, Peter Schroeder and Emily Goodin contributed to this report.

Updated at 2:15 p.m.