House GOP says sequester is leverage in next budget battle

Politically battered House Republicans returned to the Capitol this week bashing ObamaCare, even as they acknowledged their leadership wouldn’t again demand changes to the law in the next round of budget battles.

In a meeting with House conservatives, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), told rank-and-file lawmakers that, as the party’s chief budget negotiator, he would push instead for long-term reforms to entitlement programs in exchange for changes to sequestration spending cuts that Democrats are expected to demand.

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While they denounced the rocky implementation of the new healthcare law, conservatives conceded that sequestration — not ObamaCare — remained the party’s chief point of leverage ahead of the new Jan. 15 deadline for funding the federal government.

“We won’t see another government shutdown or debt ceiling confrontation, not in this Congress,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said. “Leadership has decided that there will be a market reaction, and they don’t want to get blamed.”

“The point of maximum leverage is over,” King added.

In a series of interviews last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) vowed that Republicans would not repeat the Tea Party-inspired strategy that resulted in the government shutdown and tanked the GOP’s approval ratings in most polls.

Yet with President Obama and congressional Democrats on the defensive over the flawed rollout of the healthcare law’s insurance exchange website, Republicans said they would continue pushing for a delay in the penalty associated with the individual mandate.

“The rollout of ObamaCare is nothing short of a debacle,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told reporters after a House GOP meeting Wednesday morning, the first since the 16-day shutdown ended.

He and other senior Republicans took the Obama administration to task for the problems that have plagued the new insurance exchange website, accusing top officials of mismanagement and a lack of transparency.

“This ObamaCare exchange has been a complete and total failure, and it’s unacceptable,” said Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.), vice chairwoman of the House Republican conference.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would not echo McConnell’s pledge, but he hinted the party must shift its attention to oversight of the healthcare law and push for spending controls in the budget conference committee that Ryan is leading.

“We went through a very tough period,” Boehner said. “As I told my colleagues the other day, we fought the fight. We didn’t win. We live to fight another day.”

“The fact is we’re going to have issues about funding the government come Jan. 15. We’re going to have the debt ceiling we’re going to have to deal with again,” Boehner said later. “The looming problems that are affecting our country are still there. We are spending more than what we bring in.”

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) said that during the GOP meeting, Ryan pointed to sequestration as the party’s leverage with Democrats and said the Republican negotiators would not accept revenue increases in exchange.

“We’re going to try to push for some substantial reforms on entitlement spending and our backstop is sequestration,” Salmon said in describing Ryan’s remarks.

A Ryan spokesman would not comment.

Democrats are looking to increase spending beyond the annual level of $967 billion that would take effect in mid-January under sequestration. They are expected to seek revenue increases in exchange for any entitlement reforms.

McConnell has said the GOP would try to lock in sequester spending levels, and other Republican lawmakers said Wednesday they viewed that as perhaps their only point of leverage.

“The sequester’s our leverage,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said. “I don’t know how much we have at this point. There’s not much beyond that.”

 Erik Wasson contributed.