By Russell Berman and Erik Wasson - 05/15/13 09:43 PM EDT
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday pleaded with House Republicans to unify around a debt-ceiling plan, telling his conference that he did not want to have to rely on Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to help pass legislation.
The House Republican conference met behind closed doors for more two hours on Wednesday to discuss options for lifting the nation’s debt limit later this year. Boehner told his members at the outset of the meeting that the “purpose of this conversation is to find 218 votes needed to get us on offense.”
Boehner has struggled to win conservative support on fiscal issues, and he warned the conference against a repeat of the "fiscal cliff," when the House was forced to pass Senate legislation that allowed a tax increase and lacked the votes of a majority of House Republicans.
“When we don't have 218, what happened at the end of the year is the alternative,” Boehner said, according to notes taken by a person in the room.
“I don't ever want to violate the so-called Hastert Rule! I don't want to have to work with Nancy Pelosi and the [Democrats] to pass something. I want us to come together as we did in January and do this as a team," the Speaker said, alluding to the rule held by former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) that leadership should not bring up bills not supported by the majority of the majority conference.
House Republicans discussed a wide variety of budget-cutting proposals during the meeting, which was was the first this year dedicated to the next major Washington fiscal showdown, but rosier deficit numbers took some urgency out of the debate, members said.
Members came away with the impression that the GOP conference wants entitlement cuts to be demanded, along with any possible links to a pro-growth overhaul of the tax code.
No decisions were made on what the House GOP will demand in exchange for the raising of the debt ceiling this fall and the next step appears to be further listening sessions on the topic. The conference broke up despite a long line of members wanting to speak.
“It was a good first meeting,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said.
“The opinions were as diverse as you might expect them to be, the challenge will be to find that sweet spot of agreement,” Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) said. “We didn’t talk timeline…building consensus here and building consensus across the country is a time-consuming process.”
The CBO on Tuesday estimated that the deficit this year will be $642 billion, more than $200 billion less than it thought three months ago. Because of increased revenue, the U.S. will be able to take extraordinary measures to avoid hitting the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling until October or November, the CBO said.
Still, Republicans said they want to act by the summer to avoid worrying financial markets and to draw Democrats into a negotiation that could lead to a broader budget deal.
“The CBO provides a little more time to have a thoughtful conversation, but I don’t sense anyone wants to run this up to the last minute, I think the whole reason for the meeting is to identify our priorities early and get it out of the House early,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said.
Battles over raising the debt ceiling have largely defined the current Republican House majority.
In 2011, a standoff between Republicans and Democrats took the nation to the brink of a first-ever payments default and led to the downgrading of the U.S. "AAA" credit rating by Standard and Poor’s.
In January, after a deal was struck between the Republican leadership and conservative leaders, the House voted to suspend the debt ceiling until May 19.
The deal required that both chambers pass a budget resolution under the threat of having pay withheld.
Boehner has said that the principle he laid out in 2011 – that any increase in the debt limit must be accompanied by equivalent or greater spending cuts or reforms – still holds, even though it did not in January.
Republicans are now considering a wide range of options, from tying the debt limit to tax reform or to issues like approval of the Keystone oil sands pipeline or repeal of the 2010 healthcare law.
The goal of the debate, aides have plainly said, is to find 218 votes to raise the debt ceiling and put pressure on Senate Democrats and the White House.
“What do our members believe is necessary in order to allow them to vote 'yes' in increasing the debt limit?” Boehner asked at a press conference last week, highlighting the question at the heart of the debt-limit discussions.
Citing the negative consequences of the last standoff, Obama has refused to negotiate again over the debt limit, arguing that Congress must simply act to authorize the payment of bills it has already incurred.
Obama said he is willing to negotiate a budget deal separately that includes a mix of tax increases and spending cuts, but Boehner has rejected any new tax increases.
Senate Democrats say the GOP should stop using the debt ceiling to try to get its way on the budget.
"House Republicans haven’t learned any lessens in the past 2 years," Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in reaction to the meeting. "Why are Republicans once again using this empty threat that does nothing more than rattle the markets and increase uncertainty?"
The House last week passed a bill pushed by conservatives to authorize the Treasury to prioritize payments in the event the debt ceiling is breached. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the bill has no chance of passage in Senate, and Obama has threatened a veto.