House leaders push for debt-ceiling vote

House Republican leaders are pushing for a Wednesday vote to increase the debt ceiling, which they would tie to a bill reversing the $6 billion cuts to military pensions enacted in the December budget agreement.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) presented the plan to members Monday evening in a closed-door meeting in the Capitol, arguing that the House must send the Senate its own debt-limit plan to avoid having to accept a version with more government spending closer to the Feb. 27 deadline, lawmakers said.

The bill was posted online on Monday night.

The four-page bill suspends the debt ceiling until March 15, 2015. That would allow the government to continue borrowing without limit, and the new debt ceiling would be whatever the debt is at the end of that date.

The proposal represents a remarkable shift for Republican leaders, who once demanded deep spending cuts in exchange for raising the nation's debt limit. The plan unveiled Monday asks only to reverse a modest spending cut that Congress enacted just two months ago.

House leaders planned to whip their members Monday evening and, if there is sufficient support, hold the vote Wednesday before the House leaves for a nearly two-week recess, lawmakers said.

“It all depends on the whipping,” said Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), who described reaction in the room as “mixed” — which he noted is usually the case with leadership fiscal plans. 

Republicans are proposing to pay for the restoration in military benefits by extending sequestration cuts to Medicare providers, lawmakers said.

The bill also uses some savings to create a fund for either a permanent or temporary end to cuts to physician payments under Medicare.

Boehner said little on his way into the GOP meeting. Asked if he could find a consensus in his conference, he chuckled. “Hope springs eternal,” the Speaker replied.

While Republicans would like to get 218 votes on their side for the plan, they will likely need Democratic help because of conservatives who are resolved to oppose any increase in borrowing authority without substantial spending cuts and reforms. Several GOP lawmakers indicated earlier Monday they would be unlikely to support the emerging proposal.

“It's the same old problem...we've got to get 218 votes,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), however, rejected tying pension changes to the debt ceiling bill last week, and a leadership aide on Monday said Democrats would not rescue Boehner.

The aide said that "the unified Democrat position" is a clean debt ceiling increase.  He said the party is willing to discuss pension fix as a standalone bill only. 

The Senate Democratic leadership also has called for a clean debt ceiling increase, as has the White House.

The Speaker cited the bipartisan support for reversing the cuts to the cost-of-living-adjustment for veterans, and he suggested that Senate Democrats could tie an unpaid-for extension of unemployment insurance if the House did not act first.

Inside the Republican conference, members complained that the fix to the military pensions over 10 years was being paid for with cuts a decade from now, in 2024.

Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who opposes the plan, said based on the reaction in the room it is up in the air whether the bill can get a majority of Republicans in the House.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said the plan would fail. “I just don’t think enough of my colleagues are for it,” he said. 

But conservative Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) said Boehner would saved by Democrats. 

“I think there will be a substantial number of Democrats that would come in,” said Salmon, who predicted 150 Republicans would back the plan and that Democrats would put it over the top.

“Our leadership said that they wanted to craft a plan that was no skin off the Democrats’ back and…I think this accomplishes that,” he said.

Shortly before the meeting was to begin, a group of conservative activists that included Grover Norquist released a statement opposing the plan because it would allow for higher government spending.

The debate over the GOP proposal brought back familiar splits between allies with leadership and the hardliners who have for years opposed leadership proposals.

Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), a leadership ally, said that the Republicans who opposed the plan were giving Democrats leverage, and potentially roiling the markets with needless brinkmanship.

“A lot of things haven't resonated with them,” Boustany told reporters after the meeting. “But they need to be confronted with the facts.”

Many conservatives have largely held their fire as the leadership has tempered expectations for what the party can hope to achieve in exchange for lifting the debt ceiling this time around. 

The issue drew little mention at a daylong conservative policy summit hosted by the Heritage Foundation on Monday, and while members in attendance said they likely wouldn’t vote for Boehner’s plan, they declined to criticize the Speaker.

For Boehner, it is members like Salmon and perhaps two dozen of his colleagues that have made crafting a debt ceiling package that can pass the House nearly impossible.

The leadership can afford to lose just 15 Republicans without relying on Democratic votes, and aides said that even if they could convince some of the most ardent conservatives to vote for a debt-limit increase, they have been unable to get them to agree on what to include.

Earlier proposals to tie an increase in borrowing authority to language rolling back part of ObamaCare or authorizing construction of the Keystone pipeline didn’t fly with enough members, prompting Boehner and his team to search for ideas that could win Democratic votes.

Some conservatives, most vocally Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), have called on the leadership to dispense with any push for a concession from Democrats and simply allow them to pass a “clean” bill. But Boehner does not want to surrender entirely unless he has to, knowing that even if Democrats carried a straight up-or-down vote, a few dozen Republicans would have to vote reluctantly with them.

After speaking at the Heritage event, conservative Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) warned against giving Obama what he called “a blank check.”

“I think that’s irresponsible. I hope the House doesn’t go down that road,” Cruz said. “The proper approach, the responsible approach is to come together in a bipartisan way to fix the out-of-control spending in Washington.”

Cruz was a leading advocate of a push to defund ObamaCare that led to the government shutdown and near-default in the fall.

“We’ll have to see what the details are,” he said, “but in my view we should not raise the debt ceiling without significant structural reforms to fix the problem to stop the out-of-control spending.”

Bernie Becker and Pete Kasperowicz contributed.

This story was updated at 7:28 p.m. and 9:43 p.m.