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
Tim Alberta Michael Catalini
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Tim Alberta Michael Catalini
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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