By Russell Berman and Bernie Becker - 01/23/13 01:23 AM EST
A House Republican bill to suspend the debt ceiling through May 19 appeared to be headed toward passage on Tuesday as staunch conservatives largely held their fire and the White House gave its blessing.
The short-term debt-ceiling hike was only offered by House Republicans four days ago, but has quickly been embraced by members of both political parties.
A day before the House is scheduled to vote on the measure, White House press secretary Jay Carney called the House GOP bill “significant” and “certainly something we welcome,” while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) signaled he’s willing to move the bill if it gets to his chamber.
Although some defections are expected from the Republican side of the aisle, the conservative Club for Growth decided on Tuesday to not score the measure, relieving pressure on House Republicans who have often had to choose between their elected leadership and outside party activists on key votes.
Several of the conference’s most hard-line members told reporters they were giving serious consideration to the measure based on a promise by Republican leaders to commit to a budget resolution that would eliminate the deficit within 10 years.
In a closed-door conference meeting Tuesday, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made a final pitch for the bill and told rank-and-file members that he backed a commitment made by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to draft a budget that balances in a decade.
“Passing a short-term hike buys time for the House and Senate both to pass a budget,” Boehner said in the meeting, according to a source in the room. “With the right reforms in place, Paul’s goal is to advance a budget that balances within a decade. I applaud that goal, and share it.”
Boehner reiterated that the GOP would leave the automatic spending cuts of sequestration in place “unless and until we get spending cuts and reforms to replace it.”
The bill includes a stipulation that if the House and Senate do not both approve an annual budget, members of each chamber would have their salaries withheld. Republicans have complained that the Democratic-led Senate has not passed a budget in nearly four years.
“I’m glad to see that we are starting to shine that light on the fact that the Senate has not done its job,” second-term Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) said at an event with five other House conservatives.
Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), who declined to vote for Boehner earlier this month, said he was “OK” with the leadership’s strategy of putting off a fight over the debt ceiling until after a pair of battles over government funding and sequestration over the next two months.
The House Republican budget proposal approved last year would not have balanced until close to 2040, according to projections at the time, meaning that the party will have to find steeper cuts to do so sooner without raising taxes. Conservatives said the path would be easier in 2013 because of the tax increases that have become law as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal, and because the budget would include the more than $1 trillion in scheduled cuts from sequestration.
Two conservatives who have bucked the leadership in previous fiscal votes, Reps. Trey Gowdy (S.C.) and Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.), said Tuesday they would probably support the bill.
“This is the most viable option that we’ve got,” Westmoreland said, likening the strategy to a chess match.
With a smaller majority in the 113th Congress, Boehner’s hold on his conference has been weakened in recent months, with a majority of Republicans voting against legislation on the fiscal cliff and providing disaster relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy.
Conservatives described a tentative cease-fire with the leadership, but they put heavy pressure on Boehner and his team to deliver, both on the party’s budget resolution and in the fiscal battles ahead.
“In many ways, in 90 days this is going to be the ultimate test of the relevancy of those we entrust with those leadership positions, and I believe there’d be hell to pay if they squander this,” said Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), who said he was leaning toward supporting the debt-ceiling bill.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said he was undecided on the bill, and wondered aloud if the GOP would be able to recapture the high ground on the debt ceiling after retreating now. He praised the strategy for putting pressure on the Senate.
“Those are all things to like about this, but I’m still having reservations about raising the debt limit clean,” he said. “It’s a hard thing to do, and I think the problem is, if you’re willing to raise it for three months unconditionally, why wouldn’t you raise it for six months unconditionally? If you’ve raised it three months unconditionally, three months from now what principle can you stand on to keep them from raising it again?”
He later told reporters he was leaning against the bill, comparing it to “punting the ball on first down to gain field position.”
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a harsh critic of Boehner, said he would likely oppose the bill. “Raising the debt ceiling for a budget to be named later is something that I probably won’t be able to vote for,” he said.
Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) and Paul Broun (R-Ga.) all said they were either leaning against or definitely opposing the bill.
It also is unclear how many House Democrats will offer support for the measure.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has criticized the GOP measure as a gimmick and called for a longer-term extension of the debt limit.
Yet support from the White House makes it likely many Democrats will back the bill, which also includes a provision to withhold lawmaker pay if the House and Senate don’t pass a budget by April 15. The office of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the leadership was still discussing the bill with its members and would not say whether they would whip against it at the end of the day.
Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), chairman of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, said Tuesday that he would likely support the measure, a signal that more centrist Democrats might help the GOP push the measure through the House.
The White House had said it would not negotiate with Republicans on the debt ceiling, and the House GOP bill — in a significant concession — includes no spending cuts.
The suspension of the debt ceiling is also not directly linked to passage of a budget by the House and Senate.
— Mike Lillis contributed to this report.
— Updated at 8:23 p.m.