Deal Within Sight, but Confusion Still Rampant

House leadership getting closer to a short-term agreement with the White House

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) (C) is surrounded by U.S. Capitol Police plainclothes officers as he arrives at the U.S. Captiol October 11, 2013.
National Journal
Michael Catalin and Tim Alberta
Add to Briefcase
Michael Catalin Tim Alberta
Oct. 11, 2013, 12:25 p.m.

As House lead­er­ship inched to­ward broker­ing a short-term agree­ment Fri­day with the White House that would re­open the gov­ern­ment and raise the debt ceil­ing, un­cer­tainty aboun­ded on Cap­it­ol Hill due to a raft of al­tern­at­ive pro­pos­als that are be­ing con­flated by aides and law­makers alike.

Aides to Speak­er John Boehner have been work­ing since Thursday night with the White House to iron out the de­tails of a deal that could be presen­ted to House Re­pub­lic­ans as soon as Sat­urday morn­ing at a spe­cial con­fer­ence meet­ing. Mem­bers began spec­u­lat­ing Fri­day af­ter­noon about an agree­ment be­ing im­min­ent once House lead­er­ship an­nounced there would be no fur­ther votes on Fri­day.

“If there’s any san­ity left, it will all be over soon,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.

While both cham­bers are ne­go­ti­at­ing with the White House, the House ap­pears to be fo­cused on short­er-term solu­tions. Lead­er­ship is ask­ing the White House to es­tab­lish guidelines for com­pre­hens­ive fisc­al ne­go­ti­ations in ex­change for re­open­ing the gov­ern­ment and rais­ing the debt ceil­ing. Law­makers ex­pect both bills to in­clude pro­vi­sions that would al­low con­ser­vat­ives to save face after swear­ing nev­er to sup­port a “clean” bill to re­solve either crisis.

As de­scribed by Re­pub­lic­an aides, the debt lim­it could be ex­ten­ded un­til Nov. 22 in ex­change for some small con­ces­sion, pos­sibly an en­ti­tle­ment-re­lated re­form that Obama has pre­vi­ously voiced sup­port for. The gov­ern­ment could be fun­ded through early Decem­ber, pos­sibly in ex­change for a minor Obama­care-re­lated con­ces­sion such as re­peal­ing the med­ic­al-device tax. Both ex­ten­sions would ex­pire with a back­stop; the House leaves for a brief Thanks­giv­ing re­cess on Nov. 21, and en­joys sev­er­al weeks off be­gin­ning Dec. 13.

“Ob­vi­ously any frame­work on a lar­ger agree­ment must in­clude the real drivers of our debt and de­fi­cits, in­clud­ing the pres­id­ent’s health care law,” one Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship aide said.

Yet House Re­pub­lic­ans also warned that noth­ing is fi­nal­ized, and em­phas­ized that con­ver­sa­tions between lead­er­ship aides and the White House re­main flu­id.

“As we have pub­licly stated, any House vote on a short-term debt-lim­it bill is con­tin­gent on the White House and House Re­pub­lic­ans agree­ing to ne­go­ti­ations on a lar­ger fisc­al frame­work,” said Boehner spokes­man Mi­chael Steel. “There is no agree­ment at this point on what that frame­work would in­volve, and we don’t plan to com­ment on the de­tails of these dis­cus­sions.”

On the oth­er side of the Cap­it­ol, Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, fresh off their meet­ing with Obama at the White House on Fri­day af­ter­noon, are thought to be push­ing longer-term solu­tions to both crises.

Ac­cord­ing to seni­or GOP aides, some Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans are of­fer­ing to fund the gov­ern­ment at the $986 bil­lion spend­ing level, while provid­ing flex­ib­il­ity for agen­cies to re­pro­gram se­quester cuts with­in their budgets. This con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion, which would man­date a re­peal of the med­ic­al-device tax, would fund the gov­ern­ment for any­where from 12 weeks to a full year.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who first offered a sim­il­ar plan last Sat­urday, presen­ted her ideas to Obama on Fri­day. “He said that it was con­struct­ive, but I don’t want to give the im­pres­sion that he en­dorsed it,” Collins said.

Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans have not ar­tic­u­lated a spe­cif­ic set of de­mands in ex­change for a debt-lim­it in­crease, but sources say their fo­cus is geared to­ward ac­com­plish­ing some com­bin­a­tion of en­ti­tle­ment-re­lated policy ob­ject­ives, which could in­clude means-test­ing Medi­care to raise premi­ums for wealth­i­er be­ne­fi­ciar­ies; lan­guage on in­come veri­fic­a­tion; lan­guage de­fin­ing “full-time” em­ploy­ment; and lan­guage that would re­define the size and scope of the In­de­pend­ent Pay­ment Ad­vis­ory Board. Some of these con­ces­sions are also be­ing sought by the House as part of a long-range budget agree­ment.

Mean­while, a small clutch of House con­ser­vat­ives — from five to 10 mem­bers — are work­ing on a sep­ar­ate solu­tion to the twin crises. This group, re­portedly led by Rep. Charles Bous­tany of Louisi­ana, is de­term­ined to draw an abund­ance of Obama­care-re­lated con­ces­sions in ex­change for a long-term fund­ing meas­ure. Their of­fer to re­open gov­ern­ment would start with re­peal­ing the med­ic­al-device tax. But, ac­cord­ing to one mem­ber of the group, “that’s not enough.” On the debt ceil­ing, this con­ser­vat­ive group would pro­pose a short­er ex­ten­sion that would al­low time for broad­er budget ne­go­ti­ations over man­dat­ory spend­ing.

One mem­ber of the group, who spoke on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity, said their pro­pos­al was be­ing “filtered through” levels of House lead­er­ship and was not an at­tempt to un­der­mine Boehner.

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