WASHINGTON – House Republicans appear confident they have the votes to pass a short-term debt ceiling increase as they attempt to dispatch with this fiscal battle to focus on bigger ones ahead.
The bill, coming up for a vote Wednesday, would be an early test of Speaker John A. Boehner’s latest approach after the Ohio Republican has struggled to rally his restive majority to a unified position.
The legislation would suspend the $16.4 trillion debt limit to allow the nation to continue to borrow money to pay its bills for another three months and then increase the legal limit to that new debt level.
Republicans have at least temporarily abandoned their demand for matching dollar-per-dollar spending cuts that had been a key component of the so-called Boehner Principle in past debates.
Instead, the House GOP will require that the Senate pass a budget by spring – something Democrats who run the upper chamber have declined to tackle in past years, but now signal they want to do.
The White House said Tuesday it would accept the short-term punt even though President Obama prefers a longer-term solution and has insisted he will not negotiate with Republicans on raising the debt limit, which is needed to pay the nation’s already accrued obligations.
“The House Republicans made a decision to back away from the kind of brinkmanship that was very concerning to the markets, very concerning to business, very concerning to the American people,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday. “So the fact that the House Republicans have made this decision is certainly something that we welcome.”
Boehner and his leadership team emerged with the new strategy after a private retreat last week with lawmakers. They believe their leverage in forcing budget cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and other domestic programs will be greater on the next battles, and want to push the politically and economically risky debt ceiling debate off to pursue these next pressure points.
On March 1, $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts that had been postponed as part of the New Year’s “fiscal cliff” deal are set to begin – a prospect lawmakers on both sides of the aisle hope to avoid.
Later, on March 27, the federal government faces a shutdown if lawmakers fail to provide funding for routine operations that expires at that time.
As a sweetener to attract conservative votes Wednesday, Republican leaders tacked on a provision that would temporarily withhold pay for lawmakers in a chamber that fails to act to pass a budget.
But Democrats in the Senate appear less motivated by lost pay – though the spectacle of senators without paychecks would certainly be a political blemish – and more by the desire to provide a stark contrast to the House GOP budget coming from Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the former vice presidential nominee.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declined to say Tuesday whether he would take up the House bill, if it passed on Wednesday. But indications were the Senate was willing to go along for now with Boehner’s strategy as the broader budget battles unfold.
In the House, rank-and-file Republican lawmakers said they would be supporting the measure even as conservatives still wrestled with their decisions.
Several right-flank lawmakers gathered at a “Conversations With Conservatives” event on Capitol Hill, a regular gathering of conservative members of Congress, said the vote would be among the toughest of their careers.
Conservatives received conflicting signals Tuesday as the conservative Club for Growth announced it would not oppose the measure, but the tea party powerhouse FreedomWorks said members should vote no.
Leaders declined to announce that they had the votes in hand, and Boehner was assembling his troops behind closed doors on Tuesday evening as they gauged support.
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