GOP Reversal on Debt Ceiling Not a Sure Thing

The government would remain shut down for now

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (C) addresses reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, October 10, 2013.

UPDATED at 2:18 p.m.

House Republicans said Thursday they will propose a plan to lift the federal debt limit for six weeks in exchange for a commitment from President Obama to negotiate a broader fiscal reform package.

The move represents a stark reversal for the House GOP, which had previously insisted it would not extend the U.S. borrowing authority without an accompanying mix of spending cuts or fiscal reforms. The stopgap debt-limit hike that House leaders will present to Obama this afternoon at the White House would not include a battery of demands.

However, the plan would not end the 10-day-old government shutdown, members said, and it is far from clear that President Obama would agree to negotiations under those conditions.

For weeks, the President has said he will not negotiate with Republicans unless government is funded and the debt ceiling is increased. On Thursday morning, a White House official reiterated that position in a statement to reporters. “The President has made clear that he will not pay a ransom for Congress doing its job and paying our bills,” the official wrote in an email. “Once Republicans in Congress act to remove the threat of default and end this harmful government shutdown, the President will be willing to negotiate on a broader budget agreement to create jobs, grow the economy, and put our fiscal house in order.”

If the president maintains that position, as White House Spokesman Jay Carney pledged to do midday Thursday, the Republican offer may not go anywhere. “What we have discussed as a conference is a temporary extension of the debt ceiling in exchange for a real commitment by this President and the Senate Majority Leader to sit down and talk about the pressing problems that are facing all the American people,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor after the morning meeting.

The exact contours of the proposal, which House Republican leaders unveiled during a closed-door conference meeting in the Capitol basement on Thursday morning, are still emerging. Members said no formal bill was presented by leadership. But if Obama is open to the notion, a vote on the House floor could take place as soon as Friday. Carney said Thursday that Obama would “likely” sign even a temporary “clean” debt limit deal, but he refused to speculate on whether Obama would approve of several Republican proposals that may be included in the bill.

House Republicans cast the next step as securing a “handshake” agreement with the President to enter negotiations, which Obama has thus far eschewed in an attempt to break what the White House characterizes as “the cycle of hostage-taking.”

“It’s a pretty out-of-the-box kind of an idea from where we’ve been,” concedes Representative Matt Salmon, a conservative Republican from Arizona.

The move is a sign that party leaders are determined to stave off the specter of default, and see an opening to force Obama to the bargaining table. In recent days, conservative activists have also expressed openness to splitting the debt ceiling and shutdown conversations, in the hopes of refocusing the debate on Obamacare. “What this will do, hopefully, is show some movement on our side,” says Wisconsin Representative Reid Ribble. “It gets the President at the table.” It also represents a tacit admission that the House GOP, which has seen its poll numbers slide as the shutdown drags on, recognize the political peril of the negotiation position they had long staked out.

Once there, House Republican want Obama to agree to a familiar package of spending cuts, entitlement reforms and other measures designed to shave down the deficit and reach a balanced budget. The short-term debt limit hike could buy time for Obama and House Republican leaders to revisit the framework of a broader budget deal—perhaps not the grand bargain over which they haggled in 2011, but a package of reforms that both sides could market to their bases as a significant accomplishment.

“We have to attain some kind of agreement before we do a full-year debt ceiling” hike, says John Fleming, a House Republican from Louisiana.

In the meantime, the government would remain shuttered, unless the Republicans’ opening offer paves the way to further agreement. Decoupling the debt limit from the government funding bill gives no relief to the legions of federal workers currently on furlough. But House Democrats have signaled that they would not turn down a clean debt-limit hike of any length, even though they, like the White House, strongly prefer a long-term solution. “We’re not going to vote against making sure that America pays its bills,” said Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer.

It is still uncertain whether the restive House Republican conference broadly supports the plan. While members described the meeting as positive and cordial, others said both more moderate and more conservative members expressed reservation. Some centrist Republicans are concerned about leaving the government shuttered. While several of the Tea Party Republicans who forced the shutdown in an effort to change elements of Obamacare said they would support the plan if Obama signed on, others withheld their support.

“There’s a lot of support for a team effort. It’s not like it’s a sharp division of people opposing each other. People may not agree with the components,” says Representative Steve King, an Iowa Tea Partyer who said he wasn’t sure if he would back the plan. “They’re not unified on a direction, but they’re unified on the idea of getting unified.”

With reporting by Alex Rogers and Zeke Miller