The Washington Post

House Republicans weighing short-term debt limit increase

paul ryan House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan ( R-Wis.) leaves a Republican caucus on Capitol Hill earlier this month. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- House Republicans are weighing a plan to raise the nation's legal borrowing limit for just a few months, a move that could shift debate over the debt ceiling into March, when Congress will face other major fiscal decisions, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Thursday.

But, speaking to reporters at the annual House Republicans retreat at Williamsburg's storied Kingsmill Resort, Ryan said Republicans are still in intense discussions about how to approach the difficult question of raising the debt ceiling. He said House leaders were using closed-door sessions Thursday to educate their own members, many of them itching for a fight with President Obama over the debt limit, about the potential consequences of failing to raise the limit.

In a caucus that has been split over how to negotiate with the White House, Ryan said there was unity that the most important priority must be to use the coming fiscal debates to force a real reduction in debt and deficits.

“The worst thing for the economy is for this Congress and this administration to do nothing to get our debt and deficits under control,” Ryan said. “We think the worse thing for the economy is to move past these events that are occurring with no progress made on the debt and the deficit.”

But he seemed open to an idea advanced by a number of conservatives in case there is no agreement to raise the limit -- he said he believes the White House would have the authority to prioritize spending in case the borrowing limit is not raised. President Obama has insisted that if Congress does not raise the debt limit, the nation will default on its spending obligations and will be unable to issue Social Security checks and veterans benefits.

Many conservatives believe those consequences are overstated and that while large parts of government would shut down, tax receipts would provide enough funding to allow the government to meet some obligations without borrowing new funds.

“It presents a cash flow problem, where you have obligations going out one day and revenues coming in one day and they’re kind of lumpy and they don’t always match each other," Ryan said.

The Treasury Department has said it does not believe that it has the authority to prioritize certain spending obligations over others, noting that its computer systems are designed to pay all bills as they come in. Ryan said, however, that he disagrees with that analysis, but would also be happy to see Congress take action to provide Treasury with the necessary authority.

"We obviously believe the administration should prioritize such things," he said. "And people like me are fine with giving the administration crystal-clear authority on how to prioritize such things.”

Ryan's brief meeting with press gathered at the golf resort represented his most extensive comments to reporters since he lost his vice presidential bid on Election Day.

With many spending hawks eager for a renewed brawl with the White House, Ryan appeared eager to tamp down rhetoric which could make Republicans appear intransigent in the coming debates. Asked if the debt ceiling was a "hostage" Republicans were willing to shoot -- a phrase famously applied during the last round of debt debates in the summer of 2011 -- Ryan demurred.

"I don’t want to use any metaphors such as that," he said.

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