With some House Republicans spoiling for another fight over lifting the country’s borrowing limit, leadership is eyeing a repeal of an obscure provision in the new health law over approval of the Keystone XL pipeline as its price for cooperation.
That wish list, described to TIME by a House GOP leadership aide, represents a marker being laid down as the Obama Administration says the debt ceiling must be raised by the end of February, and as Democrats warn Republicans not to play a game of chicken with the nation’s credit rating again. The path toward approval of the controversial pipeline was cleared a bit last week by a State Department report that found minimal environmental impact in building the pipeline. So Republicans are leaning toward seeking a repeal of so-called risk corridors in the health-reform law instead. The risk corridors reimburse insurers buffeted by fewer healthy people signing up than they had originally expected, acting as a cost buffer during the experimental early years of health care reform.
The leadership aide described repealing the risk corridors as Republicans’ more likely target. Many Republicans are calling the program a government bailout of insurance companies, including Representative Steve Scalise, Republican of Louisiana, who chairs a coalition of House conservatives. “I think it would be a real tough position to sell to say that when we’re running out of money, when we’re maxing out our credit card, we should also be borrowing money from China to bail out insurance companies,” Scalise told TIME last month.
Under the risk corridors, the Department of Health and Human Services would pay insurers to offset risk pools that are too heavy on older, sicker Americans — unless a surprisingly high number of healthy people sign up. The program will only run through 2016, according to the American Academy of Actuaries, because “as more data becomes available on the health spending patterns of the newly insured, the ability to set premiums accurately should improve, thereby reducing the need for risk corridors.”
Representatives Pat Tiberi, Republican of Ohio, and Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois, told TIME on Tuesday that they could support the leadership’s strategy on either the risk corridors or the pipeline. But the State Department report easing the way for Keystone might make it less likely that Republicans use the pipeline as a bargaining chip. “Keystone ought to be approved on its own merits; it doesn’t need to be tied to the debt ceiling,” Scalise told the Washington Post.
Whatever the Republican demand is, Kinzinger said it would have to be “a reasonable opening position” that could bring over some Democrats — a tall order considering that Democrats have been almost entirely unified in insisting that they will only raise the debt ceiling with no strings attached.
“Last thing you want to do is ask for the moon again and then have a divided government,” Kinzinger said.
House Speaker John Boehner has the weaker hand, having already said he won’t force a cataclysmic debt default, so any possible ask will be extremely difficult to deliver. Some Republicans, still smarting from the blame their party took over last year’s government shutdown, want to hold their fire this time. “We should bring up a clean debt ceiling, let the Democrats pass it, and just move on,” Representative Raúl R. Labrador, Republican of Idaho, told the Post.
But there are still conservative firebrands in the caucus that want to push for more. “There are some of us that think the President shouldn’t get any more money until he can explain the issues around Benghazi,” Representative Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, told TIME, referring to the 2012 attack on an American consulate in Libya that has become cause célèbre for conservatives.
The federal government will reach its borrowing limit on Friday, but the Treasury Department can use extraordinary accounting measures to delay the need for a debt-ceiling increase until the end of the month.