WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – Republicans appear to be willing to avoid a showdown over the debt limit and instead use the sequester as their main negotiating lever in upcoming fiscal fights with the White House and Senate Democrats.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Republicans at a closed-door retreat in Williamsburg were weighing a short-term increase in the country’s borrowing limit, giving all sides time to work on a broader fiscal plan in March that would include substantial spending cuts.
“Sometimes you’ve got to lay down a sacrifice bunt,” said Rep. Dennis Ross of Florida about the debt ceiling increase. He said there was a realization among his House GOP colleagues that they had to be ready to deal when negotiations began.
That strategy would represent an about-face for a Republican conference that has now repeatedly denied Speaker John Boehner the support he needed to strike compromises with Democrats.
But a debt-limit fight is one many leading Republicans – including former Speaker Newt Gingrich – were loudly warning against. Gingrich and others have argued that Republicans should reserve what capital they have for negotiations they stand a greater chance of winning, including on legislation that funds the government, reduces spending, and unwinds the coming across-the-board cut known as sequestration.
And it appears clear that even some of the more conservative House Republicans are starting to agree.
“We have no interest in shutting down government. We don’t have to,” said Republican Rep. John Fleming. “The sequestration goes into effect by law and I don’t think the president is going to want the kind of cuts … any more than we do. So we’re on equal footing now.”
Ryan, offering reporters a general rundown on the private talks on spending and budget issues that Speaker John Boehner and rank-and-file House Republicans were holding in a nearby building here, provided no details about the debt-limit offer they were considering. He said it was one of a number of options for proceeding on the various fiscal issues ahead that were being discussed.
The country hit the legal limit on its borrowing on Dec. 31, and Treasury is using “extraordinary measures” to manage the government’s payments. But the United States is expected to exhaust its ability to use those accounting steps as early as Feb. 15 or as late as March 1. A default could lead to a downgrade of the country’s credit rating and throw financial markets worldwide into chaos.
While some Republicans have wanted to use the debt-limit fight to force spending cuts, Obama is taking a tough line, accusing the GOP of putting the full faith and credit of the United States on the line and saying he will not negotiate over the issue.
Congress also must deal with the sequestration cuts in March and another measure to keep government funded when the current stopgap spending bill expires March 27.
“Our goal is to make sure our members understand all the deadlines that are coming, all the consequences of those deadlines that are coming, in order so that we can make a better informed decision on how to move and how to proceed,” Ryan said.
And as part of that, he said, “We also have to recognize the realities of the divided government we have … the divided government moment we have.”
For House Republicans, the spending and budget issue is the most important fight to have, Ryan said. “We think that the worst thing for the economy is for this Congress and this administration to do nothing to get debt and deficits under control.”