House Speaker John A. Boehner moved closer to a debt-ceiling solution on Thursday, mulling over several new plans that the House could consider early next week.
But Boehner (R-Ohio) remains undecided about how House Republicans will proceed, and will spend the weekend reviewing a handful of bargaining options that have drawn GOP interest.
“We’re still looking for the pieces to this puzzle,” he said at a news conference. “We do not want to default on our debt, and we will not default on our debt. We’re in discussions with members on how to move ahead, we’ve got time to do this. No decisions have been made.”
Boehner did not rule out passing a “clean” debt-limit extension — one without strings attached — should Republicans not coalesce around a plan that would extend the federal government’s borrowing authority.
This week, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the government will run short of cash to pay its bills by the end of this month unless Congress grants an extension.
“It is imperative that Congress move right away to increase our borrowing authority,” he said in a speech on Monday.
Calming the financial markets and crafting the legislation that can pass the House without causing more rifts in the already fractious Republican conference is Boehner’s priority, said members of the GOP’s whip team, who met Thursday morning at the Capitol to discuss a path forward.
“A lot of options are being kicked around,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a Boehner ally, said as he left the session. “We’re trying to figure out what’s the best step for our conference, to see what has broad support.” Rep. Lynn A. Westmoreland (R-Ga.) added, “Leadership is under pressure to make a tough decision about what they can do, all while Democrats target us.”
On Thursday, White House press secretary Jay Carney repeated what has become the administration’s standard response, saying, “Our position, the president’s position, is what it has been for a long time, which is that we are not going to pay ransom in return for Congress fulfilling this basic responsibility.” Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate echoed that position.
Over the past week, a flurry of debt-limit strategies were floated by House Republicans, only to fizzle. They included proposals to demand approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline or repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act.
On Thursday, however, two ideas gained traction, with dozens of Republicans predicting that versions of the pitches could hit the floor next week once House members return to Washington.
At the top of the list: a proposal to link a one-year extension of the debt ceiling to a restoration of recently cut military benefits. Another popular option is tying the “doc fix,” which would alter the way doctors are reimbursed for Medicare treatments, to an extension. Changes to the federal budget that would reduce fraud or mandatory spending levels also have been mentioned.
At a private lunch Wednesday, Boehner told a group of his loyalists that the military-benefits maneuver could force some Democrats to join Republicans and also win support from conservatives, who have voiced frustration with the reductions in payouts for retired military personnel. Those benefits were lowered in last year’s bipartisan budget agreement, which cut $6 billion in payments to veterans over 10 years.
Outside the House floor Thursday, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said House Republicans are warming to the military-pension increase as a debt-limit option, especially because the leadership has said the increase to military benefits would be offset by cuts elsewhere — perhaps enabling Republicans not to be targeted by conservative watchdog groups.
“If it is brought up, we expect it would be paid for,” she said. “We’re looking for something that can address the debt limit and do something else simultaneously that can win Republican votes. This idea could be just that.”
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) said Boehner has not signaled his debt-ceiling intentions. But he called linking veterans’ benefits a “smart” idea, “since I’ve got a lot of military in my state and so do many others.”
For the moment, Boehner is playing his cards carefully, keeping tabs on the informal whip count for potential debt-limit solutions in his office and checking in with backbench Republicans, tea-party favorites and committee chairmen about what option could garner a bevy of GOP votes without causing too much unrest among the House’s conservative bloc.
And despite his political predicament, Boehner made light of his situation Thursday when asked about the trepidation among some House Republicans to buy into a recently nixed plan to attach approval of the pipeline to the debt ceiling.
“Mother Teresa is a saint now, but you know, if the Congress wanted to make her a saint and attach that to the debt ceiling, we probably couldn’t get 218 Republican votes,” he said.