House GOP Lacks Negotiating Plan for Debt Ceiling

House GOP Lacks Negotiating Plan for Debt Ceiling
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House Republicans are without a plan to handle this month's debt ceiling deadline, potentially weakening any leverage with Democrats in the reoccurring showdown.

Lacking adequate support, GOP House leaders on Wednesday dismissed two proposals tied to approving an increase in the government’s borrowing-limit. The attachments, discussed during the conference retreat last week, eliminated the so-called risk corridors for insurance companies under the health care law and pushed approval of the Keystone pipeline.

The Republican leaders face the difficult balancing act of finding some kind of attachment the majority of their conference can support without alienating Democrats who will probably be needed for passage.

For now, lawmakers aren’t willing to take on a “clean” increase—that is, one without attachments—but some acknowledge that that may be inevitable after rounds of fruitless negotiations.

The leadership team has been influenced by the lessons learned from the government shutdown in October, in which a failed strategy and unrealistic demands put the party in a public-approval hole. The politics of a midterm election year is also putting pressure on a party conscious of how a damaged brand could undercut its hopes of winning control of the Senate.

“I don’t see anyone who wants to force a showdown,” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole said. “I think people know we lost badly politically. If it hadn’t of been for Obamacare, we would still be feeling the pain in the polls.” Cole, a member of the GOP whip team, said leadership is hoping this will “be handled in a way that’s not a crisis atmosphere.”

For some, a certain reality has begun to sink in. “Let’s be honest with the American people that we’re not going to get anything this time,” Republican Rep. Raul Labrador told reporters on Wednesday.

The Idaho lawmaker, among the more conservative members of the conference, argued that Washington has followed a familiar choreography over the past couple of years: Rounds of high-stakes moves eventually end with the borrowing limit extended and Democrats conceding little to Republican demands.

“I don’t want a ruse,” Labrador said. “I don’t want to just claim we’re fighting … for all these great things and capitulate again.”

The congressman advocated for a vote on a clean increase that would force Democrats to own it.

But Labrador and several other House members who acknowledge the limits of GOP power in a divided government said they themselves would not vote for the measure.

That strategy seemed to irk leadership trying to protect members who would likely take a hit for such a vote.

“So you leave 40 or 50 people out there to do the heavy lifting and take the hit while you vote no and yell at them?” Cole said. “It would be much more effective if we at least started in the same place with 218 people voting for something substantive and recognizing our leadership is going to have to negotiate. … Let’s vote for something that gets us 218 and trust the leadership to go from there.”

Talks will continue within the conference this week to forge a path forward. But time is running short. The administration says the debt ceiling must be raised by the end of February. The House will recess early next week to allow Democrats to attend their caucus retreat in Maryland. The following week, Congress is in recess for the Presidents Day holiday, then returns in the final week of the month. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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