House Republicans backing off to avoid debt standoff

WASHINGTON — With another major fiscal deadline looming at month's end, House Republicans are preparing to seek only modest concessions from President Obama to raise the nation's debt ceiling and will instead try to press their political advantage on other issues.

The strategy is a stark reversal from 2011, when the new House Republican majority pushed a partisan debt standoff that led to a historic downgrade in the nation's credit rating. Republicans bore the brunt of public blame for both the downgrade and last year's 16-day government shutdown.


The latest Republican approach reflects the diminished influence of hard-line conservatives and concern about another self-inflicted political wound before the midterm election.

Charting a more careful path this time, House Speaker John A. Boehner and his leadership team told rank-and-file members Tuesday that they needed to quickly coalesce around achievable goals rather than divide over wish lists that leave them on the losing side of the fight.

In previous battles, Republicans sought to mollify small-government conservatives by linking their support for a debt ceiling increase to slashing government spending. Now GOP leaders are focused on using the must-pass debt limit legislation to put political pressure on Democrats by attaching less-divisive proposals that might be difficult to oppose in an election year.

But Republican leaders have also signaled that they would not risk a government default, suggesting that they would back away from even modest conditions if pressed.

Boehner warned that if Republicans failed to unite around a proposal that can pass without Democratic votes, they risked having to simply accept a "clean" debt increase. The federal government's authority to continue borrowing expires Friday. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said this week that the government could juggle its bills for a couple of weeks after that, but that it would run out of money by the end of the month unless Congress raised its borrowing authority.

Republicans emerged from Tuesday's discussion all but resigned to the new strategy. Lawmakers said there appeared to be a greater recognition within the party that any proposal would have to be far more modest than in the past.

"We can talk about the land of glitter and unicorns all you want," said Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.). "But at the end of the day we're going to vote in reality. We're going to live in reality."

By Tuesday afternoon, party leaders were gauging support for one option: to raise the debt limit for a full year in return for striking an Obamacare provision meant to protect insurers from losses during the program's rollout. Griffin and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have sponsored such a bill, called the Obamacare Taxpayer Bailout Prevention Act.

But that idea was complicated by an estimate Tuesday from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that predicted the "risk corridors" provision that Republicans want to kill would actually net the federal government $8 billion over the decade. A GOP leadership aide said those findings were unlikely to substantially alter the debate because the party's own projections showed that doing away with the risk program would save on costs.

Other options were also being considered but had yet to gain traction.

Key conservatives expressed frustration at what they saw as an inevitable vote that would yield none of the budget cuts they have sought. Some are advising party leaders to simply offer a clean debt limit increase, with no demands attached, and shift to new battles.

"They're just going to go through the motions anyway, and then whatever ideas conservatives put out there are going to be blamed for whatever standoff" occurs, said Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.). "So let's just avoid the theater and move on."

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said there was little appetite for continuing the fight. "When you set up the chessboard the same way and play the same match enough times … you know how it comes out. Little kids might like to keep playing that same game, but it's not interesting," he said.

Even as they suggested that course, both congressmen said they would not vote for a clean bill.

Their resignation was a far cry from the GOP's campaigns just a few years ago. Fresh from the 2010 midterm election that delivered Republicans control of the House, many new GOP lawmakers entered Congress vowing to fulfill their campaign promises not to raise the debt ceiling without extracting steep budget reductions. The "Boehner Rule" emerged as a new Republican mantra: $1 of spending cuts for every new dollar of borrowing allowed.

That arithmetic became the foundation for the 2011 deal that ended the first debt ceiling showdown. But it also proved untenable.

The so-called sequester cuts that resulted became too painful for many Republican lawmakers to bear, particularly as they dug into the military. Those cuts were partly reversed with the most recent budget accord struck in late 2013 by Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

The shutdown, in particular, was a learning experience for Republicans; they recognized that it distracted attention from the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act, a story that soon consumed the public's attention and put Democrats on the defensive.

"I believe the whole conference has learned a lot of lessons since the shutdown," said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a key centrist. "The political terrain right now is not particularly good for [Democrats]. With the unfolding rollout of the healthcare law still being chaotic, the only thing that would help them is if the subject becomes the House Republicans and the debt ceiling."

Democratic leaders said they would wait to see what the House could approve, but warned Republicans against another debt showdown.

"Instead of sliding into another knock-down, drag-out fight, why don't we skip the crisis this time?" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters. "It's up to the Republicans to do that."