WILLIAMSBURG — House Republicans backed away from their resolute position on the federal debt ceiling, announcing Friday that they will move next week to boost the government’s borrowing authority for three months.
The move is a retreat from the earlier insistence among some Republicans that any such debt increase would have to be matched by spending cuts of equal or greater size.
A vote on the proposal is expected Wednesday. If successful, the measure would postpone what was expected to be a major clash with the White House over government spending.
The new strategy, crafted at a three-day retreat here that
ended Friday, is one sign that Republicans, battered at the polls last November and saddled with low public approval, are looking for new ways to litigate their differences with President Obama and congressional Democrats over spending and deficits.
Under the bill, Republicans will seek to raise the debt limit to allow government borrowing through mid-April — long enough, they say, to give both chambers time to pass a budget for the next fiscal year. If either chamber failed to adopt a budget by April 15, that chamber’s members would then have their congressional pay withheld.
As laid out to fellow Republicans by House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) in a speech at the retreat, the goal would be to force Senate Democrats to pass a budget, something they have failed to do for more than three years. With a budget in place, he told them, Republicans would require that a longer-term increase in the debt ceiling be tied to significant 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,” he said, according to excerpts from the speech that were released Friday.
As for docking the Senate’s pay if it does not adopt a budget, he said, “the principle is simple: No budget, no pay.”
The GOP’s new path is an attempt to acknowledge the reality that the party controls only the House while preserving a tactical advantage that could force long-term reductions in spending, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin told reporters Thursday.
An administration official said the White House viewed the move as a major concession by House Republicans.
Though Obama has in the past insisted on increases of sufficient length to calm financial markets and remove any doubt about the ability of the U.S. government to pay its bills, the official said the president would accept a “clean” short-term extension that did not include cuts.
“We are 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,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement. “Congress must pay its bills and pass a clean debt limit increase without further delay.”
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said the Senate would “be happy to consider” an increase in the debt ceiling that arrives without conditions. He did not address, however, how the Senate would treat the House’s proposal to tie member pay to the passage of a budget.
Some leading House Democrats reacted more negatively than the White House, asserting that a short-term extension would inject new uncertainty into the economy and indicating that tying congressional pay to the production of a budget would violate their belief that Congress should increase the debt ceiling without strings.
“We need a clean debt ceiling increase and a bipartisan and balanced budget that protects Medicare and Social Security, invests in the future, and responsibly reduces the deficit,” Drew Hammill, spokesman for Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), said in a statement issued Friday. “This is a gimmick unworthy of the challenges we face and the national debate we should be having. “
The Treasury Department has said Congress must raise the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling by the end of the February or early March, or the United States would not be able to meet its obligations to its creditors.
Besides removing the immediate threat, a short-term debt ceiling increase would shift the debate to areas where Republicans believe they have more leverage.
Those include automatic spending cuts set to hit the military and domestic programs in early March, as well as the expiration of a funding mechanism keeping the government running at the end of that month.
Politically, it could also transfer attention from the troubles of the House GOP — which polls show Americans blame for Washington’s fiscal gridlock — to the Democratic Senate, which has not approved a budget resolution since Obama’s first year in office.
Amid a sometimes arcane fiscal debate, Republicans believe that the budget issue offers a politically potent way to make their case with ordinary Americans who sometimes lose interest in the minutiae of the fiscal debate.
“At this retreat, what we’ve said is we’re going to do things different,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House’s third-ranking Republican. “We’re going to start first with a road map that all Americans know: a budget.”
After a rocky few months in which Boehner has proven repeatedly unable to rally fellow conservatives on key votes, Republican aides said they were confident the three-month extension would pass the House, despite pledges from some fiscal hawks to use the debt ceiling fight to win concessions from Democrats on entitlement spending.
Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, which represents a bloc of the House’s most conservative members, issued a joint statement with three former chairmen of the group endorsing the idea.
“The American people expect Washington to pass a budget and live by it,” they said.
The move provides policy benefits for House Republicans as well. If House leaders succeed in forcing the Senate into negotiations over a budget resolution, they could theoretically reap a host of related policy benefits, including fast-track privileges for cuts to health and retirement programs and an overhaul of the tax code that lowers rates — the GOP’s top policy goal.
The fast-track procedure, known as “reconciliation,” protects deficit-reduction measures from filibuster in the Senate. It can be created only as part of a budget resolution. Reconciliation was last adopted in 2009, as part of the fiscal 2010 budget, and used to push through the final piece of Obama’s health-care initiative in early 2010.
Since then, Democrats haven’t even tried to enact a budget framework, primarily because the party splintered over strategies for reining in budget deficits driven to record levels by the recent recession.
Moderates disliked Obama’s prescription for sharply higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, while liberals refused to take the budget ax to government spending.
Though they controlled both chambers in 2010, Democrats did not stage a vote on Obama’s budget request that year, deferring to an independent fiscal commission Obama named to develop a bipartisan plan for lowering deficits.
Republicans took over the House in 2011 and promptly passed their own budget framework. But the Democratic Senate failed to act, deferring to budget negotiations underway between Obama and Boehner over the debt ceiling.
Last year, the House again approved a budget framework. It was again ignored by Senate Democrats, who argued that the debt-ceiling agreement had set spending levels for government agencies for the next 10 years.