A reality is beginning to dawn on — and eat away at — many House Republicans: They aren’t at all sure of their party’s strategy to re-open government and lift the debt ceiling.
After forcing leadership to pick a fight it didn’t want to pick, sitting through hours of meetings with lots of internal hand-wringing and failing to force Democrats to negotiate, the path to avoid a prolonged government shutdown and the first debt default in American history is completely uncertain.
“If anybody tells you it’s clear to anybody let me know,” said Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, the chairman of the Rules Committee and a member of Republican leadership. “I’ll call them collect.”
Now, the party is flagging in polls one week into the first government shutdown in nearly two decades. And they’re just eight days ahead of the deadline set by the Treasury to lift the debt ceiling. A slew of House Republicans are now saying they believe they won’t bear responsibility for a default.
“The only person in town who can cause default is President Barack Obama,” said Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana.
In the many legislative wrestling matches since Republicans took the House in 2011, there has always been the faint signs of an endgame. Either Obama would cut a deal with Speaker John Boehner or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would work something out with Vice President Joe Biden.
But this time, as Wall Street lights up the phones of rank-and-file House Republicans and public sentiment turns sharply against the party, things are stuck in neutral. It’s a dynamic that’s worrying senior Republican lawmakers and aides.
“We’re trying everything we know how to do to entice them to negotiating, talking this thing through and solving the problem, but we get no response,” Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) told POLITICO, referring to Democrats and Obama.
There was some hope that Tuesday’s attempt by the House GOP to create a bicameral, bipartisan deficit and debt committee — along the lines of the failed supercommittee — would do the trick. But just hours after it was announced, Obama issued a veto threat, saying he would reject the plan. It all happened so quickly that several Republicans told POLITICO they were unsure of exactly what their leadership was proposing. And GOP leadership sought to distinguish the panel from the supercommittee.
The White House and House Republicans are further apart than ever before. Obama said Boehner should open up the government and lift the debt ceiling and then the two parties could negotiate. Boehner called that an “unconditional surrender.” The comments elicited cheers from House Republicans, but at least a half-dozen GOP lawmakers told POLITICO that Congress is dangerously close to a default.
Boehner, for the time being, is playing it cool. He has told Republicans in closed sessions and in conversations on the House floor that he has “something up his sleeve.” No one is sure what he’s talking about, and he hasn’t revealed his strategy. Several Republicans he is close with says he’s keeping his cards close to his chest.
And, in a worrisome sign, GOP unity is beginning to fray, little by little. Conservative Republicans are beginning a push to force leadership to handle the debt ceiling and the government shutdown separately — a logistical challenge since the debt limit must be lifted by Oct. 17 and the government has been shut down for a week. This will be a major topic at Wednesday’s Republican Study Committee meeting.
“They don’t need to be tied together,” RSC Chairman Scalise told POLITICO Tuesday. “The debt ceiling will have to be dealt with, but it’s got to be dealt with in a way that also puts reforms into place.”
Conservatives — including senior members of the RSC — have begun talking about short-term debt ceiling plans, but only with legislative add-ons like repealing health insurance subsidies for members of Congress, aides and the White House; or a debt prioritization plan in case of default.
And as Republican leadership tries to broaden the debate beyond Obamacare to other areas of mandatory spending, many in the rank and file want to keep focus on the health care law. That’s a major reason they’re pushing party leaders to keep a government funding bill separate from debt ceiling legislation, worried that Obamacare could get lost in such a big fiscal package.
“It’s keeping the focus on Obamacare, which is the face of spending and bigger government,” said Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.). “That’s our focus. I think we need to keep the debt ceiling and the CR separate. I don’t think they need to be morphed into each other. I think for the discussion we’re better served if they stay separate.”
To be sure, Republican leadership thinks the Democrats’ position is unsustainable and will break at some point.
“We’re trying to substantively engage the White House and Senate Democrats on the issues that face the country. Their unwillingness to sit down and negotiate now is not sustainable,” said Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). “They may redefine ‘negotiate.’ But at some point, they’ll come to the table and we’ll … come up with things that yield a good result. But they need to get off the position that, ‘We won’t talk to you.’ It’s dysfunctional and irrational.”
House Republicans say they’ll keep up their barrage to try to force Democrats to negotiate. On Tuesday, they passed a bill to fund Head Start programs. On Wednesday, there will be more bills to restart slices of the government.
Many Republicans believe the only way to solve the impasse is a massive budget deal that would fund government, lift the debt limit and enact budgetary reforms. But in a meeting Tuesday, Boehner attempted to pull back on that, saying he wanted to “put points on the board” instead of crafting a large-scale deal.
Right now, there doesn’t appear to be any incentive to back down. Republicans largely say they aren’t feeling any pressure from their constituents and instead say that people contacting their office are urging them to keep up the fight.
“When I was home, I talked with people in our office that called in, I don’t get the sense that 70 percent [of people blame us],” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). “It’s a tough position for the president of the United States to say ‘it’s OK to treat people differently under Obamacare and I’m going to keep doing that and not talk to you guys about any way we’ll change that.’”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said his party knows that they won’t get everything they want, “but we better start talking.”
“Let’s start talking before we start running,” Chaffetz said.
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