GOP seeks solution, not fight, on debt
WASHINGTON - House Republicans return to Washington on Monday still struggling to find a path to raising the Treasury Department's borrowing authority, but the normally raucous caucus is in unusual agreement that the best option is to put the white-knuckle confrontations of recent fiscal wars behind them.
Facing a timeline that leaves no room for trial and error, some party leaders were advocating a debt-ceiling solution that would wrap several popular, must-pass items around a provision to extend the federal government's borrowing authority beyond the November midterm elections. That approach has drawn support from some surprising quarters, but several senior GOP advisers made it clear over the weekend that such a proposal would require a bloc of Democratic votes, because about 30 Republicans oppose raising the debt ceiling under any circumstance.
By Sunday night, GOP leaders had not conducted a formal whip tally on their side to determine how many votes they had, and no outreach had been made toward Democrats to determine what kind of support - if any - such a plan would receive from them.
Without as much internal dissent as in previous budget showdowns, Republicans still face a powerful enemy: the calendar. The House will adjourn Wednesday afternoon so Democrats can attend their annual issues retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and then the entire Congress is shuttered during the week of Presidents' Day.
Once the chamber closes Wednesday, the House will not return for a full workday until Feb. 26, which is one day before Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said he will lose his ability to juggle the nation's finances. The quick march would then begin toward defaulting on portions of the nation's more than $17 trillion debt, sending global financial markets reeling.
This time crunch means that unless Republicans quickly coalesce around a plan, the last week of February will bring another countdown moment before a critical fiscal deadline.
House Republicans are not sounding the confrontational drumbeat of other showdowns with President Obama, who has been adamant that he will accept no trade-offs for what he considers a simple exercise in guaranteeing that the federal government will make good on its debts.
The turn toward compromise signals a break from the tactics used by Republicans in past fiscal negotiations, particularly for those who took the lead in pushing House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) into a 16-day shutdown of the federal government in October.
Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R., Idaho), who took part in an aborted coup attempt against Boehner 13 months ago, said, "Our constituents are fed up with the political theater." Labrador has gone so far as to advocate turning over the House floor to Democrats and letting them pass a "clean" debt-ceiling hike mostly on their own, foisting political blame all on Democrats and raising no false hope among conservative activists that concessions can be wrung from Obama and Senate Democrats.
The issue is finding something that can get broad support from the House GOP but also pick up Democratic support, shifting the onus onto Senate Democrats.
Many Republicans, anxious about the coming midterm elections, are urging Boehner to pass legislation that could win bipartisan backing, and the leading options are proposals that Democrats have voiced support for in other negotiations.
A handful of bargaining ideas has emerged, with a proposal to restore recently cut military benefits in exchange for a one-year extension as a leading option. Other ideas, such as tying an extension to the "doc fix," which would alter the way doctors are reimbursed for Medicare treatments, are in the mix.
If none of those options can gain traction, the fallback plan may be Labrador's. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D., Md.) has pledged about 180 Democratic votes for a clean debt increase, leaving the need for fewer than 40 Republicans to vote with Democrats or to just vote "present."