GOP Leaders Agree to "Clean" Debt Limit Increase

GOP Leaders Agree to "Clean" Debt Limit Increase
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House Republican leaders will bring legislation to the floor Tuesday night to increase the debt ceiling without any policy demands. The move comes after accepting a reality that has plagued the GOP conference in recent years, particularly involving fiscal matters: It lacks the 218 votes needed for passage of an alternative measure that would include trade-offs from Democrats.

The bill that will lift the government’s borrowing limit -- which expired last week -- is designed to pass with majority support from Democrats. Over the past couple of weeks, House Speaker John Boehner discussed possible attachments with his members -- including approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, changes to part of the health care law, and reinstating benefit cuts to veterans under age 62 -- but none garnered enough support from the majority of his conference.

“We don't have 218 votes,” Boehner told reporters on Tuesday. “You don't have 218 votes, you have nothing."

With that, the GOP will bring a “clean” bill to the floor, and promised a minimum number of votes -- about 18 -- from Republicans that will combine with a majority of Democratic votes to pass the bill. Boehner, who as speaker rarely casts votes, said one of those yeas will be his.

Conservative outside groups like Club for Growth and Heritage Action, which have been a public thorn in Boehner’s side, oppose the bill as a capitulation and say they will be scoring lawmakers’ votes. 

In conversations with Boehner, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she “conveyed the support of the Democratic Caucus for a clean bill to lift the debt ceiling.”

"We'll let the Democrats put the votes up.” Boehner said. "We'll let [the president’s] party give him the debt ceiling increase that he wants.”

That comment, designed to provide some political cover for GOP members, irritated Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, who criticized the speaker’s inability to get more than 18 votes to pay the nation’s bills. “Isn’t that pathetic?” Hoyer told reporters three times.

Hoyer, the Democrats’ vote counter, said he will support the debt limit bill, noting that his members will bring “north of 180” votes. The party currently has 199 members, and Hoyer’s estimate signals some Democrats won’t vote to support the measure because “the demagoguery of this issue is of concern to people.”

Still, the speaker’s move is a marked departure from past behavior, and effectively waives the so-called “Boehner rule” of requiring a dollar in cuts for every dollar the borrowing limit is raised. Still, the speaker’s move is a marked departure from past behavior. In the 2011 budget negotiations with the president, Republicans secured $2 trillion in spending cuts and have insisted upon something (ranging from the unreasonable to the modest) in return for lifting the debt limit each time the deadline has arisen.

But the government shutdown last October damaged Republicans and has colored their perspective this time, as many lawmakers acknowledge they aren’t likely to win concessions on this issue with Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House.

Last year, Congress went to the brink of default. As part of a budget deal in October to re-open the government, lawmakers extended the debt ceiling to February, and the Treasury Department has used so-called extraordinary measures -- that last only until the end of the month -- to prevent default.

After their annual conference retreat earlier this month, GOP leaders have sought to repair the party's image by focusing on issues that unite Republicans instead of divide them. Immigration reform, for example, has thus fallen to the wayside. During the press conference announcing the debt limit measure, leaders shifted to messaging on jobs and the health care law. 

If the measure passes the House, it is unclear how it will fare in the Senate, where a 60-vote threshold is typically the first hurdle for legislation, meaning five Republicans would have to vote in favor of proceeding with the bill. Lawmakers could, however, reach an agreement to require a simple majority vote if no one objects.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would not say whether his members would filibuster the bill, saying only that they would wait for the outcome in the House and evaluate the measure’s terms once it reaches the upper chamber.

“I don’t think Republicans over here want to have any ownership of this thing. And there are no Republicans that I know of who will want to vote for it,” Sen. John Thune, a member of the GOP leadership team, told RCP. "So finding Republicans who will vote for it to get to 60, I suspect it will be pretty slim pickings.”

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

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