Republicans say they want something in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. They just don't know what that "thing" is yet.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who received some bipartisan points for negotiating a budget deal that takes a government shutdown off the table for two years, has signaled an impending fight. "We don't want nothing out of this debt limit," Ryan said on Fox News Sunday. "We're going to decide what it is we can accomplish out of this debt-limit fight."
Senate Republican leaders echoed Ryan's comments, but skimped on specifics. "I doubt that the House, or, for that matter, the Senate, is willing to give the president a clean debt-ceiling increase," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday. "I can't imagine it being done 'clean,' so we'll have to see what the House insists on adding to it as a condition for passage."
House Republicans returning from recess will likely discuss what they want from raising the debt limit and how they want to get it. But right now, ideas are sort of all over the place, from energy to health care. Ryan has brought up the Keystone XL pipeline. McConnell's primary challenger, Matt Bevin, told The Hill it should be used to defund Obamacare.
"I'd like to attach to that some real health care reforms that will preserve freedom and choice for Americans, based on what we're seeing right now," said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. "There are a number of things I'm willing to consider. The House is going to pretty well dictate that, but we could do some energy, we could do some tax reform. There are a number of things we can do some really good pieces of legislation that maybe we should tie to the debt ceiling."
Republicans haven't crafted a strategy, in large part because most of the attention has been exhausted on the budget and nominations in the Senate. "I am not really ready to talk about that," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. "I just haven't thought beyond the budget yet."
"I want to know the circumstances, I want to know how long — I gotta know how they want to go about it before I would want to do that," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said of raising the debt ceiling.
The deadline also isn't pressuring lawmakers into action, particularly since the timing of the debt-limit increase isn't even exactly clear. The deal that ended the government shutdown suspended the debt ceiling until Feb. 7. After that, the Treasury Department can use so-called extraordinary measures to stave off the need for Congress to increase the debt limit. Such measures lasted five months last time around.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew predicted in November that there was about a month's worth of extraordinary measures. The Congressional Budget Office estimated there could be enough revenue to push off the actual debt-limit deadline to March, or even as late as June.
But the Bipartisan Policy Center, which has made accurate forecasts in the past, predicts Congress will most likely have to act by the end of March. Unlike in 2013, the center predicts fewer measures will be available in February, and it believes the CBO estimation is highly unlikely.
The timing of the debt-ceiling deadline could make raising it, or not raising it, a perilous line to walk. Midterms are just around the corner, and a number of Republican lawmakers are facing primary and general election challenges.
In the meantime, the discussions have been mostly informal. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said the debt limit has been discussed in some meetings, but they haven't been organized meetings that represent the views of the conference.
"Obviously the debt ceiling is the most important debate that we'll have, and it's the appropriate place for us to try and find some common ground on some structural improvements that will help us reduce our debt and deficit over time," Isakson said. But what about doing something on health care or some other GOP priority? "We've got enough issues where if we can incorporate some things in there together, we'd be better off," he said.
Certainly, Republicans aren't going to say they want nothing in return for raising the debt limit. "Every ounce of fiscal discipline we've had has come by virtue of debt-ceiling negotiations, so to let that pass, to raise the debt ceiling without addressing the source of our long-term structural deficit, wouldn't be a good thing," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
"Every time we vote to increase the debt limit without any sort of measures — it doesn't have to be the whole thing — but without some sort of meaningful step that begins to place us on a path towards getting the debt under control, I think is a mistake," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
The White House hasn't budged from its position either. "We're not prepared to bargain with the full faith and credit of the United States," Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said Wednesday. ""¦ There's still a lot of things that could force a discussion about our fiscal future, but threatening default isn't one of them."
For now, enjoy the relative fiscal peace on Capitol Hill, because it won't last for long. Asked whether the budget deal has eased the GOP aversion to raising the debt limit, Johnson said, "Not at all."
"This budget deal just prevents government shutdown," he added.