Republicans Are Likely to Cave on Debt Ceiling. But That Won’t Be the End of It.

House conservatives are already plotting retribution.

U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner speaks during a news briefing after a House Republican Conference meeting January 14, 2014. 
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
Jan. 29, 2014, midnight

Con­ser­vat­ives are already gear­ing up for an­oth­er fight over the debt lim­it next month, but their first battle could come as soon as Thursday as they face off with mem­bers of the House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship who, they say, ap­pear to be ready to cave.

House Re­pub­lic­ans will de­vote sev­er­al hours at their an­nu­al re­treat this week to dis­cuss­ing their tac­tics on the debt ceil­ing. But many con­ser­vat­ives, who in­sist that they will not give the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion an­oth­er debt ceil­ing in­crease without get­ting something in re­turn, are grow­ing in­creas­ingly con­cerned that Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship isn’t in their corner.

Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary Jac­ob Lew has giv­en Con­gress an end-of-Feb­ru­ary dead­line to raise the debt ceil­ing to avoid de­fault. House Speak­er John Boehner has in­sisted re­peatedly that Re­pub­lic­ans will not al­low the coun­try to de­fault, and that has some con­ser­vat­ives nervous that he has re­duced their lever­age on the is­sue.

“I sus­pect a fairly great amount of pres­sure to leave, quote, ‘good enough alone,’” Rep. Mark San­ford, R-S.C., said.

Rep. Tom Cole of Ok­lahoma, who is a mem­ber of House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship, de­fen­ded Boehner on Tues­day, ar­guing that the debt-ceil­ing de­bate de­pends not on the speak­er, but on Pres­id­ent Obama’s will­ing­ness to ne­go­ti­ate. “I think the im­port­ant thing is what the White House’s at­ti­tude is. If it’s go­ing to be, ‘You have to do this, and we’re not go­ing to give you any­thing,’ you know, that’s go­ing to be a very tough sell in the Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence,” Cole said.

Cole con­ceded that if the pres­id­ent isn’t will­ing to give any­thing, Re­pub­lic­ans will likely pass a clean debt-ceil­ing in­crease any­way, want­ing to avoid a de­fault — par­tic­u­larly in light of the Oc­to­ber shut­down that so badly dam­aged his party’s brand.

But Cole also noted that Con­gress has ac­com­plished some pretty dif­fi­cult tasks over the last two months: passing a budget agree­ment that no one ex­pec­ted would be made, and writ­ing up a 12-part om­ni­bus in just a month’s time. And they’re poised to pass the-farm-bill-that-couldn’t this week. But all of that could change — quickly, he said — if Obama forces con­ser­vat­ives to pass a clean debt-ceil­ing in­crease.

“If the pres­id­ent tries to over­play his hand, [he] may suc­ceed here. But those are the kinds of things that people have a way of re­mem­ber­ing,” Cole said. “And it com­plic­ates things like im­mig­ra­tion re­form that I know he wants to get done. It com­plic­ates oth­er is­sues.”¦ If it’s go­ing to be an­oth­er struggle, no mat­ter who wins, it’s go­ing to pois­on the well for the rest of the year.”

Both im­mig­ra­tion and the debt-ceil­ing de­bate will be ma­jor top­ics of dis­cus­sion at this week’s re­treat, which be­gins Thursday. Con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers say they will push a num­ber of policy riders to at­tach to the debt ceil­ing, pos­ing a clear mes­sage to Boehner that they won’t just give the pres­id­ent something for noth­ing and wait for fu­ture battles.

A num­ber of op­tions for the debt lim­it are cur­rently be­ing dis­cussed, in­clud­ing a re­peal of sev­er­al meas­ures in the pres­id­ent’s health care law. They in­clude: re­peal­ing the In­de­pend­ent Ad­vis­ory Pay­ment Board, the group that will make bind­ing re­com­mend­a­tions to Con­gress to re­duce Medi­care costs be­gin­ning in 2015; over­turn­ing the med­ic­al-device tax; and re­mov­ing the law’s “in­sur­ance bail­out” that provides fed­er­al fund­ing to in­sur­ance com­pan­ies to off­set the costs of cer­tain new cus­tom­ers brought to them un­der the Af­ford­able Care Act.

The Key­stone XL pipeline could be an­oth­er op­tion for con­ser­vat­ives who are de­term­ined to put up a fight.

Con­ser­vat­ives ex­pect a fair amount of in­fight­ing, even among sup­port­ers. Rep. Steve King of Iowa said Tues­day that he had heard a num­ber of pro­pos­als for a debt-ceil­ing deal, but he is skep­tic­al there is enough will­ing­ness with­in his caucus to hold its ground.

“I think the folks that might want to go along with those things should demon­strate their con­vic­tion first. They don’t have to won­der about mine.”¦ Any­thing that we might de­cide we want to at­tach, we have to be will­ing to hold our ground,” he said.

Asked if he planned to spend the re­treat get­ting mem­bers to com­mit to stand­ing their ground, King sighed. “I ac­tu­ally don’t know if that can be done.”

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