GOP to Colleagues: Increase Debt Limit or Harry Reid Will Do Worse

House Republicans are trying to scare their members into voting for a debt-ceiling increase.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) speaks to the media during a news conference on Capitol Hill, September 19, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
Feb. 5, 2014, 1:04 p.m.

Wor­ried that they don’t yet have the 218 votes to pass a debt-ceil­ing in­crease with­in their caucus alone, House Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers are try­ing a new tac­tic to get their mem­bers on board: fear. But that fear may be mis­placed.

After meet­ing with mem­bers, lead­er­ship has learned it does not have suf­fi­cient Re­pub­lic­an votes to pass a debt-ceil­ing in­crease with either the Key­stone pipeline or changes to the Af­ford­able Care Act’s risk cor­ridors at­tached. Earli­er this week, those were the two most com­mon meas­ures cited by House Re­pub­lic­ans as po­ten­tial off­sets for in­creas­ing the debt lim­it. But a Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice re­port show­ing that the health care pro­vi­sion will ac­tu­ally re­duce the de­fi­cit on its own if left in place, and mem­bers’ feel­ings that they will likely get Key­stone any­way and should ask for more with­in the con­text of the debt fight, have re­duced sup­port for both pro­vi­sions.

See­ing a tick­ing clock on the wall — Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary Jac­ob Lew warns that the debt lim­it must be lif­ted by the end of the month, at the very latest, to avoid de­fault — House lead­er­ship and a num­ber of Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers have pushed the idea in re­cent meet­ings that if they don’t act on the debt ceil­ing soon, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id will. And, they warn, he’ll at­tach an ex­ten­sion of un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance be­ne­fits, guar­an­teed to gain trac­tion with Demo­crats in both cham­bers, but also guar­an­teed to cause heart pal­pit­a­tions among Re­pub­lic­ans be­cause it may not be paid for.

“We have to re­cog­nize that we’re not the only people who can play of­fense,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Ok­lahoma, who is close to House lead­er­ship, on Wed­nes­day. “If the Sen­ate wants to start mov­ing, it could. And far bet­ter for us to have the ini­ti­at­ive, so to speak, than be sit­ting here re­act­ing to whatever the Sen­ate sends over.”

That fear could get more Re­pub­lic­ans on board with a debt-ceil­ing agree­ment — per­haps even a clean in­crease — but the threat ap­pears to be an empty one.

Re­id likely doesn’t have the votes for an un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance ex­ten­sion to be­gin with. And the Sen­ate is already sched­uled to take up a three-month fix on Thursday.

Sen­ate Demo­crats are not dis­cuss­ing such a debt-ceil­ing plan with any­one, ac­cord­ing to a seni­or Demo­crat­ic aide. And they would look hy­po­crit­ic­al try­ing to do so, after spend­ing the past sev­er­al weeks call­ing for a com­pletely clean in­crease in the na­tion’s debt lim­it.

House Re­pub­lic­ans are still un­com­fort­able with the concept of a clean debt-ceil­ing in­crease. While hard-line con­ser­vat­ives, con­vinced that they won’t get what they want from lead­er­ship any­way, are push­ing for a clean in­crease just to end the battle, lead­er­ship is wor­ried about the idea of for­cing dozens of GOP mem­bers in­to the vul­ner­able po­s­i­tion of hav­ing to join Demo­crats on the vote.

“The very people that are re­com­mend­ing that would be the first people to con­demn the folks that vote for it.”¦ When you re­com­mend a clean vote with no ef­fort, you’re just ba­sic­ally say­ing, ‘But 20 or 30 of you guys can go off and get beaten to death, and we don’t really care wheth­er you do or not,’ ” Cole said.

House lead­ers haven’t yet giv­en up on get­ting to 218 with Re­pub­lic­ans alone, however. And they’re con­sid­er­ing a dizzy­ing num­ber of pro­vi­sions to at­tach to the debt-lim­it in­crease to get there.

The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ports that mem­bers are look­ing at a plan that would tie a fix for cuts to mil­it­ary pen­sions in a lar­ger debt-ceil­ing pack­age. The cuts, which were part of Decem­ber’s budget agree­ment, face ma­jor op­pos­i­tion on both sides of the aisle and a fix could at­tract suf­fi­cient votes in both cham­bers. But Re­pub­lic­ans want any fix to be paid for.

That also rep­res­ents a slap in the face to House Budget Chair­man Paul Ry­an who cham­pioned the COLA cuts in the budget ne­go­ti­ations late last year.

An­oth­er op­tion would be an ex­ten­sion of the “doc fix” for­mula that re­im­burses phys­i­cians un­der Medi­care. The fix also has strong bi­par­tis­an sup­port and could be help­ful in bring­ing mem­bers of both cham­bers on board. A three-month fix was in­cluded in the budget deal that passed Con­gress in Decem­ber, while mem­bers con­tin­ue to haggle over a longer-term solu­tion.

Neither op­tion, however, would re­duce the im­pact of rais­ing the debt ceil­ing. And neither comes close to the “Boehner rule,” hatched in 2011, which man­dates that any in­crease in the debt lim­it be off­set by sim­il­ar spend­ing cuts. That in­form­al rule re­mains pop­u­lar among House Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers.

“I think there are things that could be in place there that would make a large bi­par­tis­an vote likely. But they’re not the kind of things I’d prefer. I’d prefer to do something that ac­tu­ally lowers the debt or lowers the de­fi­cit,” Cole said. “But I don’t think that’s go­ing to be pos­sible.” 

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