By Russell Berman - 01/17/13 09:56 PM EST
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — House Republicans are discussing a short-term debt ceiling increase to buy time for broader deficit reduction negotiations with Democrats, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters Thursday.
“We’re discussing the possible virtue of a short-term debt limit extension so that we have a better chance of getting the Senate and the White House involved in discussions in March,” Ryan told reporters gathered at the pricey Kingsmill resort in Williamsburg, where the House GOP is holding its annual retreat.
A small hike in the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling would give the government more time to make payments on its responsibilities as lawmakers and the White House haggle over federal spending. A GOP leadership aide said there was no consensus on the size of a debt limit hike, and that it would have to be coupled with entitlement reforms or spending cuts.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has told Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that the nation hit its borrowing limit at the end of 2012 and will run out of ways to avoid a first-ever default sometime between mid-February and early March. $85 billion in across-the-board 2013 cuts to defense and domestic spending are set to begin taking effect in March, and the government will run out of funding a month later.
Members said one option gaining traction among the rank and file was to approve a three-month increase in the debt limit and add some spending cuts and possibly a requirement that the Senate would pass a budget, which it has not done for more than three years.
A three-month extension would push the deadline to around April 15, the legal deadline for the House and Senate to complete work on a budget resolution.
Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said nobody who spoke in the Republican conference meetings endorsed a completely clean debt ceiling hike.
Democrats are likely to oppose a short-term extension.
“Republicans have tied themselves in knots so badly that now they’re debating amongst themselves on short-term extensions,” one aide said. “Let’s be clear: pushing this down the road two months would only delay the ill effects on our economy of a potential default.”
Republican leaders are briefing rank-and-file members on the “consequences” of the three major deadlines coming on the debt ceiling, the automatic spending cuts of sequestration and the expiration of government funding at the end of March.
Ryan said the party was looking to prepare members for the coming fiscal debates, both to achieve consensus on a path forward and to set reasonable expectations for a party clinging to a sliver of power in Washington.
“Our goal is to make sure our members understand all the deadlines that are coming, all the consequences of those deadlines that are coming, in order so that we can make a better-informed decision about how to move, how to proceed,” Ryan said. “What we’ve been doing is facilitating a conservation about the best way to achieve progress on controlling our deficits and our debt, controlling spending, with the goal of doing our job to help prevent a debt crisis, and getting this economy going to create jobs.”
“Out of that we hope to achieve consensus on a plan to proceed so that we can make progress on controlling spending and deficits and debt,” he added.
Ryan said he and Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, walked members through the “mechanics” of the debt ceiling during a morning session, in part because many of the newest members of Congress have little experience with the issue.
He did not specify how long a short-term increase would be, or even whether it would include spending cuts, which Boehner has consistently demanded in conjunction with approving new borrowing authority.
“All options are on the table as far as we’re concerned,” Ryan said.
With the GOP divided and coming off a losing election and a frustrating lame-duck session of Congress, party leaders have moved to scale back expectations for members on what they can achieve in the face of a popular Democratic president and larger Democratic majority in the Senate.
“We also have to recognize the realities of the divided government that we have,” Ryan said.
“I think what matters most is people have a very clear view of what’s coming so that there are no surprises, and that means setting expectations accordingly, so that we can proceed in a unified basis,” he added.
Ryan stated the House GOP’s goal for the spring in vague terms, saying only that the party wanted to “achieve progress” on controlling deficits and the debt.
“We think the worst thing for the economy for this Congress and this administration would be to do nothing to get our debt and deficits under control,” Ryan said. “We think the worst thing for the economy is to move past these events that are occurring with no progress made on the debt and deficits.”
He continued: “We believe that it would be wrong if we walk out of this spring with no achievement on debt reduction whatsoever, because that will hurt the country, that will hurt the economy, and that’s why we believe we have to have a serious plan for tackling these things.”
Asked about House Republicans who have cast doubt on the notion that the U.S. would default on its debt if the debt ceiling was not raised, Ryan said such an event would present “a cash-flow problem” but voiced support for giving the administration authority to prioritize spending to avoid default.
The House Budget Committee chairman offered few hints of what his next budget would include, and he said that while Republicans hoped to engage Democrats in comprehensive tax reform, the GOP would move forward on an overhaul of the tax code “irrespective” of the looming fiscal deadlines.
—This story was posted at 1:46 and updated at 4:56 p.m.
Molly K. Hooper and Erik Wasson contributed to this story.