By Russell Berman and Peter Schroeder - 02/05/14 11:49 AM EST
Republican leaders are scrambling for a debt-limit plan that can win Democratic votes after determining that none of their original ideas would gain enough GOP votes to pass the House.
After canvassing members early in the week, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his lieutenants on Wednesday abandoned plans to tie an increase in the nation’s authority either to the repeal of a provision in ObamaCare or to the approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Lawmakers spent the day floating ideas back and forth. Among those said to be under consideration were plans to restore cuts to military pensions enacted in the December budget agreement, legislation granting Congress more power over regulatory decisions and a change to payments for Medicare providers known as the “doc fix.”
“There are a lot of different options that are under discussion,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told The Hill in a brief interview. “All options are on the table right now.”
Earlier in the day, Cantor told Senate Republicans at their policy retreat to expect the House to send over a bipartisan debt-ceiling bill, according to multiple people in the room. He acknowledged that House leaders could not gain enough Republican support to attach a Keystone provision or to repeal the “risk corridors” in the healthcare law, which Republicans equate to a potential insurer bailout. Cantor said, according to one person in the room, that the GOP was “now exploring ideas that would hopefully get some bipartisan support.”
One GOP senator stood up to propose structuring the expansion of borrowing authority in such a way that it would shift the entire responsibility for the vote to Democrats — a move that some House conservatives have advocated in recent days. But Cantor shot down the proposal, noting that Republicans control the House and have to vote for the debt-limit increase, according to a lawmaker present.
The Treasury Department has set a deadline of late February for Congress to lift the $16.7 trillion debt limit and avoid a default. The House is set to leave Washington for a 13-day recess next week, but it is unclear if Republican leaders will be able to act by then.
The GOP is fearful that if it doesn’t act soon, the Democratic-led Senate will jam the chamber with a clean debt-ceiling increase or even try to attach its own unrelated priority to the bill, such as an extension of unemployment insurance benefits.
While some conservatives are advocating for Boehner to simply put up a clean bill and allow it to pass with Democratic votes, senior Republicans said the leadership was not ready to concede entirely.
Top Republicans have not consulted the Democratic leadership to see what options could get votes from their members, a GOP leadership aide said.
“There are no negotiations with Democrats,” the aide said. The party is merely looking at ideas that would be likely to gain Democratic votes, the aide added.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have pushed to undo a $6 billion military pension cut included in the December budget deal that reduces the cost-of-living adjustment 1 percentage point below inflation for working-age military retirees.
But according to one Senate GOP source, Republicans in the upper chamber could be leery of the move because they want to be able to vote against lifting the debt ceiling but do not want to be against benefits for veterans.
House Republicans find themselves in a familiar box over the debt ceiling: despite a significant shift on the issue over the last three years, a portion of their conference remains adamantly opposed to voting in favor of more government borrowing.
Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) said he hadn’t voted to raise the debt ceiling since 1998 and wouldn’t do so this time.
“It wouldn’t matter to me if they put a diamond ring on it,” he said Wednesday.
And although a few conservatives, most notably Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), have said the Speaker should just put up a clean debt-limit bill and let Democrats “own it,” others want the party to keep pushing for concessions.
“I don’t advocate some sort of ‘scorched earth’ process, but I do advocate coming up with some commonsense structural reforms or specific entitlement reforms that don’t affect program benefits immediately,” Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said.
“A clean debt ceiling I think is capitulation,” he added, “and I didn’t get elected by the 6th District of Texas to come here to Washington and capitulate.”
If Boehner ultimately needs to pass a clean debt-limit increase, he will still need as many as two or three dozen Republicans to take a difficult vote.
One he can count on is Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.).
“They got it, no problem,” he told The Hill. “I think it should be a clean bill to begin with.”
“What John Boehner wants on this,” he added, “I’m going to do.”
Alexander Bolton and Jeremy Herb contributed.