House Republicans are getting ready to surrender: There will be no serious fight over the debt limit.
The most senior figures in the House Republican Conference are privately acknowledging that they will almost certainly have to pass what’s called a clean debt ceiling increase in the next few months, abandoning the central fight that has defined their three-year majority.
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The reason for the shift in dynamics in this fight is clear. Congress has raised the debt limit twice in a row without drastic policy concessions from President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats, essentially ceding ground to Democrats. Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are again ruling out negotiations over the nation’s borrowing limit, which would leave Republicans fighting against a unified Democratic front. It’s a tricky situation for the GOP in an election year: They would have to pass a clean debt limit bill or risk default.
The vast majority of Democrats will vote against everything except a clean debt ceiling increase, so if Republicans try to tack extraneous policy onto a debt ceiling measure, they’ll have to pass it on their own. At least a dozen Republican aides and lawmakers are highly skeptical they will be able to craft something that will attract the support of 217 GOP lawmakers. In short, Republicans have few options and even less time: The Obama administration says the debt limit must be raised by the end of February. Republicans, though, are skeptical of that date.
“I’ve been saying publicly that once we voted for the budget, you knew that you were going to get a clean debt ceiling,” said conservative Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), referring to the recently passed budget deal that he voted against. “The time to fight for spending cuts is when you’re talking about spending, not at debt ceiling time. So when people caved on the budget and caved on the [Ryan-Murray] agreement, it’s really hard for them to come back and say, ‘We don’t want to increase the debt ceiling’ when they’ve already voted for something that increases the debt.”
Labrador added, “In my opinion, we should just pass a debt ceiling with Democratic votes, then they can go back to their constituents and explain why they don’t want to reform the way Washington is doing business.”
It’s against this backdrop that House Republicans are heading Wednesday to their annual policy retreat in Cambridge, Md. Unlike in past years, Republicans are intent on developing an agenda that goes beyond fiscal issues, holding a major session on immigration reform where Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) intends to unveil the broad principles that will guide the overhaul process in the House.
Discussion about what Republicans will try to extract as a concession for raising the borrowing limit won’t be completely absent from the gathering on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Some in the party are already discussing attaching to the debt limit bill a provision to eliminate so-called health insurance risk corridors — a mechanism that allows health insurance companies to avoid premium spikes. Language that would instruct Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline has also been discussed.
Republicans might tack something onto legislation in an opening gambit, but observers would be wise to ignore it: It’s mostly just theater.
Abandoning a fight over the debt ceiling would be a major shift for Republicans. The creditworthiness of the United States has been at risk several times since Speaker John Boehner took the gavel in 2011. Repeatedly flirting with a debt default has been a political mess for Republicans, but these fights have forced Washington to cut trillions of dollars in spending.
The GOP has an easy out: They say Obama doesn’t want to negotiate.
“It’s clear that after watching what happened last fall, that the president is willing to take this country to default or shutdown … in order to cement his spending programs,” said Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), who was a leading figure in the unsuccessful fight to strip funding from Obamacare during last fall’s government spending skirmish. “It’s very unfortunate that he’s unwilling to negotiate solutions that would fix some of these problems.”
Of course, shifting dynamics in either the Republican or Democratic Party could spark a fight over the borrowing limit. If Republicans find a proposal that could attract 217 of their own members — the number needed for House passage — Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) would put that bill on the floor. If they can craft a proposal that attracts significant Democratic support, that could also change the political dynamic. Neither appear likely.
Budget politics will get some time at the retreat: Former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin will hold an hourlong session on “America’s fiscal crisis.”
But no one is as dug in as they were in years past. Boehner, speaking to reporters Tuesday, didn’t seem nearly as resolute in holding up the debt limit as he has been in the past. The menu of options for dealing with the debt limit is thinning, he said.
“I don’t think we Republicans want to default on our debt,” Boehner said during a news conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters. “Secondly, the president has made clear he doesn’t want to negotiate. Thirdly, it’s become obvious to me after having tried to work with the president for the last three years that he will not deal with our long-term spending problems unless Republicans agree to raise taxes. And we are not going to raise taxes. And so the options available continue to be narrower in terms of how we address the issue of the debt ceiling, but I’m confident we’ll be able to find a way.”
The deadline is rapidly approaching. In a letter to Boehner, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said Congress should lift the debt limit some time in February. The Obama administration would like to see the ceiling lifted before Feb. 7 — although that might be difficult. Treasury said it must be done before the end of the month. Many senior Republican aides doubt this calculation but refuse to give an estimate of their own.
For now, conservatives aren’t giving up the fight. Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of leadership who is running for the Senate, is advocating for entitlement cuts to ride along the debt ceiling. That’s a virtual nonstarter for the Republican leadership.
Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said he doesn’t “want to see a clean debt ceiling pass.” But, in an acknowledgement of the political distance between Republicans and the president, Scalise said: “Right now, you don’t see the president being willing to talk about solving the spending problem in Washington. We still need to push for that. That’s something I am still very interested in addressing.”
The political dynamics of abandoning the fight are tough for a Republican Party that’s made its mark by promising to get the nation’s fiscal house in order.
“If we can work through [the budget agreement], we can find a way to work that issue as well,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon said. “Stay tuned, we’ll come up with something on that.”