Senate Republicans are piecing together a plan to extract more concessions from the White House in exchange for a debt-limit increase, reviving a strategy that took the country toward the brink of default just three months ago.
While the Obama administration is already sounding alarms about the debt ceiling — Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told Congress on Thursday that the country could hit the borrowing limit as soon as February — Republicans appear ready to demand another round of spending cuts, according to lawmakers.
"You can't do these things without getting something in return," said Sen. James Risch, an Idaho Republican. "We're borrowing still over $3 billion a day. This is nonsense. It can't go on."
Republicans will meet behind closed doors early next month to draft the debt-limit strategy and map out other election-year legislative priorities. Part of the meeting, according to lawmakers, will be aimed at finding a way to circumvent Majority Leader Harry Reid's strategy to flatly avoid negotiating on the debt ceiling, which was successful in the last round.
The debt-limit issue has become a perennial sticking point for Congress. Before the shutdown, Republicans planned to force a discussion over spending cuts and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell regularly cited examples of budget-cutting measures attached to the debt limit. But the 2013 shutdown weakened Republican leverage.
This time, Republicans again smell an opportunity to cut spending. The deal passed and signed into law in October sets the deadline for an increase at Feb. 7, but the Treasury can take so-called extraordinary measures, which Lew said Thursday could extend that deadline "through late February or early March."
He also warned that waiting until the last minute to extend the $17 trillion limit would damage the economy.
Reprising their arguments from the fall, Republicans reject the idea that negotiating on the debt limit is like playing with fire. "The debt ceiling is a deadline," said Sen. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican. "We need to use it as a deadline to find savings and make reforms that help us get the debt and deficit under control."
What specifically Republicans will ask for is still unclear, but lawmakers have suggested reducing regulations and reforming the tax code as possible bartering chips. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, said her colleagues hadn't formed a strategy yet, but that there's a consensus in the GOP conference that lawmakers will force the issue.
"I think there's a general feeling — understandably so — that when it comes to the debt ceiling, we should be looking at the underlying problem and doing something about it," she said.
It's up to McConnell and the conference leaders to chart the course on the debt ceiling, rank-and-file members say. "The leadership does the negotiating on it," Risch said. "We always urge them to take that track and that is to get some cuts."
The fight comes against the backdrop of an election year in which Republicans have a real chance to take the majority. Taking the debt limit down to the wire could be seen as political vulnerability, especially if it affects the economy. But Republicans downplay those concerns.
"I think this is a discussion we've had in the past," Ayotte said. "I'm sure we'll continue to have it on this issue."
Some Republicans, like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, will face their toughest contests against fellow Republicans. For them, a no vote on hiking the debt limit could be the safest route.
"I've been thinking about this a lot. I know we need to raise the debt ceiling but we gotta finally address what got us in debt," Graham said. "I'm gonna have a really hard time supporting an increase in the debt ceiling if we don't have some structural changes to the systems that are pushing us to becoming Greece."
Foreshadowing Reid's attacks against their position, Republicans cede that the debt ceiling will be raised, but say it's a matter of negotiation as to how and when that will happen. "At the end of the day the debt ceiling will be raised," said Sen. Mike Johnanns, a Nebraska Republican. "It's just the reality of what we deal with."
Johanns, who worked with Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and others in October to craft a deal that ultimately failed to break the impasse, suggested he's ready to circumvent the majority leader if Reid won't deal with them.
Republicans would be all too happy to cut Reid out of the process — like when Vice President Joe Biden cut a deal with McConnell over the fiscal cliff in late 2012. Lately, Reid has drawn Republican ire because he oversaw a Senate rules change expediting the confirmation process.
"There probably will be some negotiation," Johanns said. "Probably not with Reid, because he deals himself out of these things."