House GOP leaders offer vote on small hike for debt ceiling


McClatchy Newspapers

Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, hoping to avert another politically costly showdown with President Barack Obama over fiscal issues, plan a vote next week on increasing the debt ceiling enough to cover three months of additional borrowing to pay the government’s bills.

The new Republican plan would come with strings attached. It also would halt pay for members of Congress unless a budget is approved by April 15. Most lawmakers earn $174,000 a year.

The Republican-controlled House routinely approves budget blueprints on largely party-line votes. The Democratic-controlled Senate hasn’t approved a comprehensive federal budget plan in about four years.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., laid out the GOP plan as House Republicans wrapped up an issues retreat in Williamsburg, Va.

"Next week, we will authorize a three-month temporary debt-limit increase to give the Senate and House time to pass a budget," he said. "Furthermore, if the Senate or House fails to pass a budget in that time, members of Congress will not be paid by the American people for failing to do their job. No budget, no pay."

The new offer is a change by House Speaker John Boehner, who’d wanted a dollar in spending cuts for every dollar of a debt-ceiling increase.

Boehner said the new plan would lead to meaningful spending cuts. "We are going to pursue strategies that will obligate the Senate to finally join the House in confronting the government’s spending problem.," the Ohio Republican told lawmakers at the retreat.

But what it largely would do is put off that debate for a while. The Obama administration has said the nation will be unable to pay its bills sometime between Feb. 15 and March 1 unless the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling is raised. The White House didn’t dismiss the Republican initiative Friday, but it did offer a cool reaction.

Spokesman Jay Carney said the White House was "encouraged that there are signs that congressional Republicans may back off their insistence on holding our economy hostage to extract drastic cuts in Medicare, education and programs middle-class families depend on."

Obama has said repeatedly that he won’t negotiate on the debt limit, and Carney reiterated the point.

"Congress must pay its bills and pass a clean debt-limit increase without further delay. And as he has said, the president remains committed to further reducing the deficit in a balanced way," he said.

In the Senate, Democrats made no commitments. But the office of Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., offered some hope.

"It is reassuring to see Republicans beginning to back off their threat to hold our economy hostage. If the House can pass a clean debt-ceiling increase to avoid default and allow the United States to meet its existing obligations, we will be happy to consider it,” spokesman Adam Jentleson said.

What’s driving Republicans is political reality.

Influential voices within the party, as well as significant players in the corporate community, warned that this was no time to fight this battle, saying the debt limit shouldn’t be used as leverage to get big spending cuts. Earlier this month, Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called a debt ceiling fight “a dead loser.” Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group supported by the Koch brothers, warned against getting entangled in a debt ceiling war. Thomas Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, warned that defaulting on the debt could badly hurt the economy.

The last time the debt ceiling was raised, in August 2011, the tortured negotiations preceding the votes damaged both sides politically.

Republicans are still feeling the fallout. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken from last Saturday through Tuesday found that 49 percent had unfavorable views of the party, while 14 percent approved of the job Congress was doing.

It’s unclear how much support the new Republican plan will get in the House, even among Republicans. The last-minute deal earlier this month to avoid the fiscal cliff, which delayed automatic spending cuts until March 1, was highly unpopular with Republicans, who voted 151-85 against it. It passed only because all but 16 of 188 Democrats went along.

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