House Republican leaders, thrashing around to find some consensus in their party on how to keep the government operating beyond the end of the month, head into a pivotal closed-door meeting with members Wednesday morning to pitch options.
One of their proposals, according to House GOP sources, will be to allow the House to vote as early as Friday on a measure that would keep the government funded past the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30 — and through Dec. 15 — but would also include a provision to delay or defund President Obama's national health care program.
However, because Democrats in both the House and Senate have said they will flatly reject that plan, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., will also lay out some fallback options for members who won't back down in their quest to end Obamacare.
Those are likely to include linking a bill to defund the health care law to the upcoming debt-ceiling fight. The Treasury Department projects that the government will reach its current $16.7 trillion borrowing limit in mid-October.
The threat of a default is seen as potentially a better avenue of leverage against Obamacare — and one that does not risk a government shutdown and the potential resulting public backlash. "I think the [best] play is in the debt ceiling — because there's no shutdown," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La.
Details of the approach, including how much Republicans would be willing to raise the debt ceiling in return for cuts in Obamacare, were not settled on Tuesday.
"No decisions have been made, or will be made, until House Republican members meet and talk tomorrow," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Tuesday.
Word that Boehner will likely offer a vote on defunding Obamacare as part of a measure that would continue government spending through Dec. 15 at an annualized rate of $986.3 billion — just under the current level and with the sequestration cuts included — appears to be a recognition that conservatives have become more unified in their demands.
What happens if the House passes such a bill is anyone's guess. One House leadership aide said the measure likely would be revised in the Senate and stripped of at least the Obamacare provisions, then sent back to the House. There also could be a back-and-forth on the funding level. "Get the ping-pong rackets out," the aide remarked.
As of Tuesday, nearly one-third of the 233 members of the House Republican Conference — 70 in all — had signed on to a bill that would fund most government functions through fiscal 2014 at a post-sequester level of $967.4 billion. The measure would do so only on the condition that full implementation of the health care law was delayed until 2015.
The option to be floated will somewhat reflect that bill, authored by Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., though it would only continue funding the government until Dec. 15. That could allow more negotiating time on a larger omnibus package for the rest of the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. But any major break by the leaders away from other aspects of the Graves proposal now embraced openly by so many conservatives could leave them significantly short of votes to pass what they want.
More certain is that House Democrats — a source of votes that Boehner and Cantor might conceivably be able to tap to pass a bill and prevent a shutdown — are determined to reject any language that targets Obamacare.
Some Democratic leaders, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, have opened the door to possibly accepting a so-called "clean" continuing resolution for just a few weeks that would maintain the current post-sequestration $986.3 billion level — provided the Obamacare-delay language was stricken.
But other Democrats would not go along. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., on Tuesday reiterated to reporters that he would vote against a CR that contained the Republicans' bottom line, saying that it really represents "no compromise" on the part of the majority party.
Hoyer went on to say that the GOP plan maintains sequestration cuts and that House Republicans should be forced to move closer to the topline figure being proposed by Senate Democrats in their 2014 appropriations bills: $1.058 trillion, which would reflect Democratic calls for a repeal of sequestration.
"I've made it pretty clear; I think we're going to have a fight. I think we ought to have the fight now rather than later," Hoyer told reporters when asked if he'd hold that position even at the risk of a government shutdown.
"I don't think the length of the CR is the key. I have not seen any Republican flexibility over the last two-and-a-half years. I have no reason to believe there would be 14 days from now," said Hoyer. He added that he believes the shorter the length of the CR, "the more undermining the confidence, the more disruption of the economy, the more traumatic to people working for the government, working with the government, contractors, subcontractors."
Meanwhile, as Republicans prepared to meet Wednesday, even key committee leaders such as House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said they weren't sure what exactly Boehner and Cantor would propose. "I think they've got some ideas "¦ and hopefully someone will pull a rabbit out of the hat," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif.