Republicans feuding over spending cuts in $1.5 trillion stopgap debt-ceiling plan

A package of spending cuts totaling $1.5 trillion has become a political football in the battle between the House and Senate over raising the debt limit. 

The cuts have triggered something of a tug-of-war between Republicans on Capitol Hill, who still are not on the same page on the controversial issue.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has signed off on the cuts, according to Senate sources. He wants to attach the spending reductions — which have not been released publicly — to a legislative proposal unveiled last week by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) authorizing President Obama to raise the debt ceiling. 

 A Senate Democratic aide said the cuts would be added in the House to McConnell’s and Reid’s last-resort proposal to raise the debt limit, giving Republicans in the lower chamber a reason to vote for the compromise. 

But House Republicans have other plans. They are considering pairing the $1.5 trillion in spending cuts with a $1.5 trillion increase in the debt ceiling, according to Senate GOP sources. Or they could take a portion of those cuts and match it with an equal amount increase in the debt limit.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) did not rule out the possibility during a brief interview Wednesday. 

“All options are on the table,” Cantor told The Hill. 

“We’re trying to stay focused on what the Speaker laid out in terms of a dollar-for-dollar increase and put caps on spending,” Cantor added, in reference to Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) demand that every dollar in debt increases be matched by a dollar in reduced spending.

House Republican leaders are faced with a major dilemma, because many of their members are not fond of McConnell’s fallback plan, which is gaining steam. Simply passing a plan that comes out of the Senate is unacceptable to conservatives in the House.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said his panel is working on various contingency plans. 

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said: “At this point, we’re entirely focused on the ‘Cut, Cap, and Balance’ legislation, which passed the House [Tuesday] night with a strong bipartisan majority.” 

However, that plan attracted a veto threat from President Obama and is considered dead on arrival in the Senate. While Senate Republican leaders have touted that measure, it has not given Republicans a significant amount of leverage in the debt-limit talks.

Passing a $1.5 trillion debt-limit increase paired with $1.5 trillion in spending cuts Democrats have already approved would give House Republicans a much better argument for why they are not to blame for causing a national default. 

A Republican senator and a GOP leadership aide said it would be very difficult for Senate Democrats to vote against a temporary debt-limit increase paired with cuts they’ve already approved. 

The GOP lawmaker said it would be difficult for Obama to veto such a measure, especially if Republicans argued that it would give more time for the Senate’s Gang of Six to flesh out a $3.7 trillion bipartisan debt-reduction proposal, which is short on specifics.

That’s a strategy similar to one Republicans employed during the fiscal 2011 budget showdown earlier this year.

A key difference, though, is that Boehner and McConnell echoed each other during the 2011 budget battle. The debt-ceiling debate has revealed daylight between the two men, mostly because of differences in their respective conferences.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that the president could support only a very brief short-term increase to the debt ceiling.

But Republicans think Obama would have a tough time justifying a veto of a $1.5 trillion debt-limit increase offset by spending cuts endorsed by Senate Democratic leaders. 

“What’s he going to do? Veto it?” said a Senate Republican.

Another Senate Republican said the House would “shift the blame game” by sending a package of Democrat-approved cuts paired with a short- term increase of the debt ceiling.

Still, during a heated meeting last week at the White House, Obama warned House Republican leaders not to test his resolve.

“Don’t call my bluff,” Obama told Cantor. 

Weighing how the political narrative has unfolded so far, Republican leaders — including McConnell — are concerned that Obama could successfully argue that the GOP is to blame for a national default in early August. Polls show that a majority of people would blame congressional Republicans more than Obama if the U.S. were to default on its loans.

The Senate is expected to defeat the Cut, Cap and Balance bill in a Saturday morning vote and then move immediately to the McConnell-Reid contingency debt-limit plan. 

If House Republican leaders do not agree in advance to support that bill, including a $1.5 trillion package of spending cuts the lower chamber initiates, they will face a tough vote at the end of next week.

Senate aides predict that it would take about a week to move the McConnell-Reid last-resort plan through the upper chamber. That timeline would send it to the House only days before the Aug. 2 deadline and a looming national default. 

House Republican conservatives have panned the McConnell-Reid plan, but it would be hard for them to escape blame for the default if they rejected it after Senate passage. 

If the House sent a short-term debt-limit increase paired with spending cuts endorsed by Democrats, Boehner and Cantor would have a much stronger argument that Democrats are to blame for a default, said a Republican senator.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said the next step would not be decided until after the Senate votes Saturday.

“There are a lot of good ideas out there,” he said. “Right now we’re focused on ‘Cut, Cap and Balance.’”

Russell Berman contributed to this report.