Debt-Ceiling Debate Takes Shape

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 04: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) speaks to reporters after attending the weekly Democrat policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on February 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. Senate Democrats gathered at a luncheon to discuss various issues inlcluding todays Farm Bill vote.
National Journal
Michael Catalin and Billy House
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Michael Catalin Billy House
Feb. 4, 2014, 3:44 p.m.

The fight over the debt ceil­ing has be­gun in earn­est.

Just hours after House Re­pub­lic­ans emerged from a strategy ses­sion in the re­cesses of the Cap­it­ol, where they dis­cussed con­ces­sions they’d like to see the White House and Sen­ate Demo­crats agree to, Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­ers un­pack­aged their pre­for­mu­lated re­sponses and shot down any such sug­ges­tion.

“Let me be clear: We can­not and will not play games with the full faith and cred­it of our coun­try,” Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id said. “We can’t again have to worry about host­age-takers, if that’s what they want.”

After largely stay­ing on the side­lines in re­cent weeks, House Re­pub­lic­ans have now of­fi­cially joined the de­bate over hik­ing the more-than-$17 tril­lion debt ceil­ing. In re­sponse to Demo­crats’ re­fus­al to ne­go­ti­ate on the na­tion’s debt lim­it — a stance that served them well dur­ing the show­down in the fall — GOP House mem­bers are con­sid­er­ing a strategy that would force the Sen­ate in­to a series of un­pop­u­lar votes.

“Look, if this is about ass cov­er­ing — I get it,” said Rep. Jim McGov­ern, D-Mass., a mem­ber of the House Rules Com­mit­tee. “If they want to throw a little red meat out to their con­stitu­ents by for­cing votes on things that won’t pass, that’s fine — as long as they don’t hold things up. It’s when they do that, draw­ing things out, that there are prob­lems.”

The House strategy, which is still evolving, may in­volve for­cing the Sen­ate to vote on a num­ber of Re­pub­lic­an ini­ti­at­ives, but without mak­ing pas­sage of those meas­ures a re­quire­ment for rais­ing the na­tion’s bor­row­ing lim­it.

Un­der the plan, the House would vote sep­ar­ately on two or more meas­ures. One of those would per­mit rais­ing the ceil­ing on the na­tion­al debt. The oth­ers would con­tain items sought by Re­pub­lic­ans, such as ap­prov­al of the Key­stone XL pipeline or re­peal of the so-called risk-cor­ridor pro­vi­sions in the Af­ford­able Care Act, which some call a bail­out for in­sur­ance com­pan­ies.

These mul­tiple res­ol­u­tions would be brought un­der a rule that al­lows the Sen­ate to pass the first meas­ure as a “clean” debt-ceil­ing in­crease, but only after sen­at­ors vote on the oth­er res­ol­u­tions, which could con­tain meas­ures that Re­pub­lic­ans be­lieve would be polit­ic­ally dif­fi­cult for Demo­crats to re­ject.

Re­id did not ad­dress any of the spe­cif­ic meas­ures, oth­er than to dis­miss the no­tion of passing any­thing but a clean ex­ten­sion.

But Demo­crats did seize upon a Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice re­port re­leased Tues­day that said the risk-cor­ridor pro­vi­sions would bring in $8 bil­lion for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Re­peal­ing them, Demo­crats ar­gue, would only in­crease the de­fi­cit.

“It’s a re­mind­er that Re­pub­lic­ans are so des­per­ate to at­tack the Af­ford­able Care Act that they will do or say just about any­thing, in­clud­ing throw­ing their own sup­posed prin­ciples on debt re­duc­tion un­der the bus,” Sen­ate Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Patty Mur­ray said in a state­ment.

The House strategy to tie a debt-ceil­ing res­ol­u­tion un­der one rule with an­oth­er bill was floated last fall. House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor pro­posed a sim­il­ar move as House con­ser­vat­ives were in­sist­ing on de­fund­ing or delay­ing Obama­care in re­turn for a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion to keep gov­ern­ment fun­ded.

That strategy was re­jec­ted by con­ser­vat­ives as not provid­ing enough real lever­age to force Demo­crats to aban­don their res­ist­ance to the GOP’s Obama­care ef­forts. What res­ul­ted was a stan­doff that led to the gov­ern­ment shut­down.

But Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials say that same strategy could be well suited to the cur­rent cli­mate, in which Re­pub­lic­ans are clearly not in­ter­ested in a ma­jor show­down. As one House Re­pub­lic­an put it, “There’s been an edu­ca­tion­al curve.”

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