Shutdown Crisis Inches Toward Resolution As GOP Seeks Escape Hatch

Republicans are ready to find a resolution to a fight that has badly damaged the party's brand

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner addresses reporters in Washington on Oct. 10, 2013

House Republicans on Friday awaited a response from the White House on a proposal that would raise the debt limit and potentially pave the way for the government to reopen in exchange for opening negotiations on a broader budget agreement designed to cut spending and reform entitlement programs.

The offer was delivered Thursday evening by senior House Republican aides. As of Friday morning, GOP aides said they had yet to receive a response from the Obama Administration. It is unclear whether the House will vote Friday on a short-term debt-limit extension, though aides suggested they hoped to do so quickly.

“As we have publicly stated, any House vote on a short-term debt limit bill is contingent on the White House and House Republicans agreeing to negotiations on a larger fiscal framework,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. “There is no agreement at this point on what that framework would involve, and we don’t plan to comment on the details of these discussions.”

The President has repeatedly said he will not enter negotiations with Republicans until the government has reopened and the looming threat of default has been swept aside. According to Republican sources, the GOP prefers to deal with the twin fiscal crises separately, which could prompt the White House to balk at the offer.

But House Republicans told TIME Friday that once a framework for negotiations is in place, they would be ready to reopen the government very swiftly, and without the preconditions—such as changes to the President’s health-care law—on which they had long insisted.  “If we went into serious negotiations, then I think that could be taken care of in short order,” said Representative Tom Cole, a GOP deputy whip and Boehner ally.

John Fleming, a Louisiana Republican who was among the Tea Party-aligned faction that forced the shutdown by pressing for changes to Obamacare, told TIME he was ready to pass both a short-term debt limit hike and reopen the government without concessions, provided Obama agreed to enter negotiations over entitlement programs.  “Obviously any framework on a larger agreement must include the real drivers of our debt and deficits, including the President’s health care law,” said a House GOP leadership aide.

Members cautioned that the two sides had not yet reached agreement. But the newfound openness within the House Republican conference to end the shutdown and extend U.S. borrowing authority without policy concessions seemed to signal that the party is scrambling for a way to extricate themselves from a showdown that has sent the party’s poll numbers plunging.

Senior House Republicans, who could not prevent a band of restive backbenchers from dragging the party into a fight over Obamacare, note that the ensuing shutdown has deflected attention from the pockmarked debut of the law’s insurance exchanges, which debuted on Oct. 1, the day the federal government shut down for the first time in 17 years. “I think we have missed a big issue. I don’t think there’s any question that this whole shutdown episode has covered for the bad rollout of Obamacare,” Cole said. Again, a lot of us have never been for the government shutdown. I don’t think it’s an appropriate or winning strategy. I think that’s fairly clear.”

The two sides, Cole added, have “inched a little closer to one another in the last 24 hours.” They aren’t there yet, but Republicans are plainly ready to find a resolution to a fight that has badly damaged the party’s brand.