By Erik Wasson, Bernie Becker and Peter Schroeder - 10/17/13 10:00 AM EDT
House Republicans are digesting the lessons of the shutdown fight and weighing whether to change their tactics before the next budget battle.
Centrists in the party are signaling the conference may be chastened by the public backlash that accompanied the shutdown and the near debt default. Polls show the party’s popularity has plummeted to historic lows.
But senior members of the party are stoking expectations that the coming House-Senate budget conference could help them win the major cuts to entitlements that they have long sought.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who will co-chair the budget conference, said Wednesday he plans to seek big changes to Medicare and Medicaid.
“I’ve made no secret that I want to get a budget agreement that gets entitlement spending under control, that gets a dent on the debt and enacts pro-growth policies to create jobs. Nothing has changed from my perspective,” Ryan said.
The debt-ceiling deal creates a House-Senate budget conference that is tasked with coming up with a fiscal blueprint by Dec. 13.
That blueprint could replace the sequester cuts, or put in place tax and entitlement changes that smooth the path for a long-term debt ceiling increase after the borrowing limit is hit on Feb. 7.
Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) warned that the budget conference would only be able to replace the sequester cuts to the military if members approach the task with a spirit of compromise.
“It depends on people’s willingness to really work. If it is just go to your corners and throw rocks at each other it won’t accomplish anything,” he said.
McKeon said that he trusts Ryan to prioritize a fight for an increase in defense spending.
“Paul Ryan and the budget did a good job for defense, and he’s very supportive,” he said.
But it remains to be seen how hard of a bargain Republicans will try to drive with Democrats, who are likely to feel emboldened by their victory in the shutdown fight.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said the budget conference could succeed if the GOP stops making “unrealistic” demands.
“Don’t talk about cutting half the government, or defunding,” he said.
Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) said House leaders would be better off reaching out to Democrats than consistently trying to appease their conference’s right wing.
“What we need to have learned is that, at the end of the day, what 230 Republicans vote for is not necessarily going to become the law of the land,” Schock said. “At the end of the day, we’re going have to negotiate.”
Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said he “hopes” a showdown will not materialize, and that the budget conference would find a way to forge a deficit deal.
“I think there is a chance we can get this thing done the right way, we’ll see,” he said.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said Republicans need to make avoiding another shutdown their priority.
“It will be our effort and our desired hope that we don’t get here again,” he said.
Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said a budget conference could succeed, in part because the GOP does not want to go through more agonizing brinkmanship.
“I think the sense of urgency is there. Nobody wants to be in the position we’ve been in,” he said.
That sentiment was echoed by centrist Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) who fought the attempt to defund ObamaCare in the continuing resolution.
“I hope that those lessons are that we have a very basic responsibility, and that’s to govern, and when we fail in those basic responsibilities, the American public will judge us harshly,” Dent said.
Managing expectations for the next fiscal fight will be a major challenge for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Several GOP lawmakers said Wednesday they would welcome a return of the "Boehner Rule" for February's debt limit battle, in which Republicans demand a dollar in cuts or reforms in exchange for a dollar in a borrowing boost.
Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) has insisted for days that Republicans were concentrating too much on ObamaCare and not enough on fiscal restraint in the fall showdown.
But Ross suggested that, after a fiscal fight where little went the Republicans’ way, the party was lucky to get another chance to seek spending cuts so quickly.
“We lost that debate by never engaging in it,” said. “We’re going to address this Feb. 7.”
"I would be interested in that," said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) of the Boehner Rule. "That sort of thing would fly through the House very quickly."
The problem for House Republicans is that sticking to the “Boehner Rule” may prove to be a tall order.
The 2011 debt-limit deal significantly curbed discretionary spending, to the point that many Democrats and even some Republicans have expressed an interest in rolling back the automatic cuts known as sequestration.
Boehner and other GOP leaders originally unveiled a debt-limit wish list in September that was chock full of other GOP priorities, but were forced to shelve it after conservatives balked at the lack of any spending cuts.
Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) made clear that — even though conservatives fell short this time — they believe voters are on their side when it comes to reining in government spending.
“The leverage is the American people,” Salmon said.