Factions are forming within the conservative wing of the House GOP, with like-minded members splitting over a proposed six-week extension of the debt limit -- and plenty of others sitting on the fence.
In this morning's closed-door GOP conference meeting, lines were drawn as conservative members rose to argue both sides of the proposed deal. Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho emerged as the leading advocate for the proposal, according to multiple lawmakers in attendance. On the other side, Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas was perhaps the most outspoken opponent.
At the heart of the disagreement is a longstanding covenant among conservatives -- reiterated yesterday by Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise -- that they should never vote for a "clean" debt limit increase, regardless of length or circumstance.
"We'd prefer a long-term deal," Scalise said Wednesday, when asked whether conservatives would approve a temporary debt limit increase. "But if we need to do something short-term, we should have the corresponding reforms."
For months, conservatives have argued that something -- anything -- must be attached to a debt ceiling deal. Their primary target has been mandatory spending; Republicans spent the summer months drafting a "menu" of entitlement reforms to offer the White House in exchange for various extensions. With the White House desperate to avoid default, the thinking went, Republicans would have leverage.
But the situation is far more complicated than they foresaw. The federal government is shuttered due to Republican insistence on attaching an Affordable Care Act delay to the funding bill; at the same time, Congress is rapidly approaching next Thursday's deadline to raise the debt ceiling.
President Obama is refusing to negotiate with Republicans until both crises are resolved. Some House conservatives think he's bluffing. That group, led by Labrador, is convinced that if they temporarily raise the debt ceiling -- allowing them to dig in deeper on the shutdown -- they will break Obama's no-negotiation stance. If that happens, they think, concessions could be won on Obamacare that would solve the funding fight and reopen the government. Meanwhile, they would still have Obama at the negotiating table to discuss a long-term debt-limit deal featuring the cuts to entitlement spending that they have long desired.
But without any binding language in the House proposal, Obama could easily agree to sign that short-term debt-limit deal before turning around and demanding that a funding bill must also pass before negotiations begin. Should that happen, conservatives would feel doubly duped -- forfeiting what was left of their negotiating leverage, and abandoning their debt-ceiling principles to boot.
This sense of uncertainty, amplified by a deep distrust conservatives feel for the White House, has Labrador pitching a proposal that some of his fellow conservatives aren't sold on.
Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who is perhaps Labrador's closest friend in Congress, said he -- like many other conservatives -- is on the fence. They have heard arguments for and against the plan, but aren't willing to stake out a position until they see the language of the final bill.
"I've always said that I would support a debt-ceiling increase only if it's coupled with major reforms to government. I had never really considered things like one-week debt ceiling increases, or one-month debt ceiling increases," Amash said.