Divided House Republicans are nowhere near agreement on what they should demand from President Obama in exchange for supporting a must-pass spending bill and legislation that would raise the nation's debt ceiling, leaving the outcome of fiscal negotiations unusually murky.
Complicating the path forward is indecision among Republicans over how to address Obamacare. A vocal band of conservatives is urging House Republicans to strip Affordable Care Act funding from spending bill that must pass by Sept. 30, and then try and pin the blame for the government shutdown that would result on Obama. Most congressional Republicans want to demand concessions on Obamacare from the president during budget negotiations, but they oppose the defund-or-shutdown strategy.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last month that he expects a “whale of a fight” over the debt ceiling and last week laid out a possible negotiating parameters, writing in the USA Today that he wants to tie government reforms and spending cuts to any agreement on raising the debt ceiling. Those government reforms would include delaying or repealing portions of Obamacare.
However, neither the House GOP leadership nor the Republican rank-and-file have settled on a preferred negotiating strategy for either the spending bill or the debt ceiling talks. Failure to pass those measures would force a shutdown of the federal government and prevent the government from meeting its financial obligations.
Members return this week from their summer recess, and the debate over whether to grant Obama authorization to use military force against Syria will continue to dominate lawmakers' time and push back talks on fiscal matters at least a week.
“There are lots of ideas,” a Republican congressman told the Washington Examiner, "but I have no clue what happens at this point."
Republicans have been wrestling with intraparty divisions throughout the current session of Congress. And while the battle lines are typically identified as establishment or leadership Republicans versus the Tea Party, the factionalism is actually much more complex — and likely to make it even harder for the GOP to reach agreement on either the spending bill or the debt ceiling increase.
House Republicans have arranged themselves into several informal groups, or caucuses, some with 10 or fewer members and each of those groups could come up with different demands they want to press in negotiations with Democrats when Congress begins debate over fiscal matters in earnest next week.
“Everybody talks up the Tea Party, but there are groups of 10-20 members focused on different things,” said one Republican operative with relationships in the House. “The members are really scattered.”
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, in an Aug. 26 letter to Boehner, said the debt ceiling must be raised “in the middle of October,” when the administration will have exhausted all measures possible to pay the nation’s bills absent more federal borrowing. Obama’s often-repeated position, supported by Congressional Democrats, is that the issue is non-negotiable, saying he expects House Republicans to approve a clean debt ceiling increase.
But House and Senate Republicans, whose votes also will be needed to move a debt ceiling hike to the president’s desk, have made clear that a clean increase is a nonstarter. In fact, they don’t believe the Obama administration’s insistence that it won’t negotiate on the debt ceiling, and aren’t bothering to factor that position into their approach to the upcoming talks. Republicans don’t expect the negotiations to fully take shape until late September.
“Nobody really buys” that Obama won’t negotiation the debt ceiling,” a senior Republican Senate aide said.
Senate Republicans don’t control the floor, and so are inclined to let House Republicans proceed first.
House Republicans are debating whether to pursue a deal with Obama that achieves entitlement and budget forms, extracts major concessions on Obamacare, or a combination of the two. The strength of the conservative-driven defund-or-shutdown Obamacare campaign could determine which path Republicans choose, as the ability to cobble together a package of reform and cuts that is comparable to the additional borrowing authority the administration seeks.
“Hopefully we can put something on table that gets White House out of seclusion, where they act as if there’s going to be a negotiation,” a senior Republican House aide said.