The PJ Tatler

GOP Plans to Merge Shutdown and Debt Ceiling Bills

Speaker of the House John Boehner and his allies are carefully crafting legislation that would re-open the government and raise the debt limit in exchange for modest budget cuts, the promise of serious tax reform talks with Democrats, and the elimination of Obamacare’s medical device tax.

Robert Costa at National Review reports that the deal being framed for Republican House members “that concurrently connects a debt-limit extension, government funding, and a small, but strategically designed menu of conservative demands.”

There is a growing acceptance, especially among the leading players, that the debt-limit talks will soon blend into the shutdown talks and force Republicans to negotiate a delicate peace that can win the support of a majority of the conference (or close to it), as well as a smattering of Democrats. To that end, recent quiet, freewheeling discussions — some hosted by the leadership, others by Paul Ryan — aren’t so much about whipping toward such a deal, but about deciding how to frame it.

So far, it has been an uneasy process, but not futile. Many of the GOP’s more centrist members are asking Boehner and Ryan to not put too much on the table, or else risk turning off Democrats and extending the shutdown. On Wednesday afternoon, during a series of meetings in Boehner’s office, they pressed the speaker to avert a default on the nation’s debt. But Boehner, though with them in spirit on averting default, told his colleagues to hang tight for the moment and swallow hard as the shutdown continues. One Boehner ally tells me the speaker first has to balance his various conservative blocs before he can even privately articulate a final pitch.

But details are floating to the surface as the leadership reaches out to internal power brokers about what’s within the realm of the possible. What I’m hearing: There will be a “mechanism” for revenue-neutral tax reform, ushered by Ryan and Michigan’s Dave Camp, that will encourage deeper congressional talks in the coming year. There will be entitlement-reform proposals, most likely chained CPI and means testing Medicare; there will also be some health-care provisions, such as a repeal of the medical-device tax, which has bipartisan support in both chambers. Boehner, sources say, is expected to go as far as he can with his offer. Anything too small will earn conservative ire; anything too big will turn off Democrats.

You can see Boehner’s dilemma. I think you can count out about 75 Republican conservatives who won’t agree to anything less than defunding or delaying Obamacare. And the speaker has to watch his left flank as Democrats have hit upon a parliamentary gimmick to bring the Senate CR to the floor for a vote that very well could pass unless Boehner can keep the moderates happy:

House Democratic leaders will begin circulating a discharge petition Friday in hopes of forcing a vote on a “clean” spending bill.

GOP leaders have so far refused to stage a vote on the Senate-passed continuing resolution (CR), insisting that the measure also include conservative provisions scaling back President Obama’s healthcare law.

But with more than 20 centrist Republicans indicating support for a clean CR, the Democrats are hoping they can attract the 218 signatures required to force such of vote.

The Democrats’ gambit is a long-shot, however, as there’s no indication that those centrist Republicans would poke their leadership even further by signing the discharge petition.

Indeed, those Republicans have sided with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on a series of votes this week to fund the government with piecemeal bills – a strategy rejected by Obama and the Democrats.

Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) launched their discharge-petition effort Friday after an afternoon meeting in the Capitol, where the Democratic Caucus huddled with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to discuss the party’s shutdown strategy.

“It is very unfortunate that the majority of the House has not been allowed to freely cast its vote to reopen the government,” Miller said. “But one thing [that’s] becoming clearer is that, as the shutdown drags on, a growing number of Republican members of Congress want the opportunity to work with Democrats to end this crisis.”

Under their petition strategy, Miller said, the House could vote on a clean CR on Oct. 14, at the earliest.

The Democrats had initially thought the discharge petition option was unavailable, because a bill must be at least 30 legislative days old before it can be subject to such a drive. But the Democrats have located a GOP bill introduced in March that serves the same purpose as the Senate-passed CR.

The Democrats only need 16 Republicans to break ranks and vote for the discharge petition — a prospect that is no doubt working to limit what Boehner feels he can offer House conservatives in any deal.

As for some of the specifics that Costa mentioned, does the GOP really want to be in a position to trust Democrats to negotiate seriously about a “revenue neutral” tax proposal? Harry Reid has been saying for months that any tax reform measure will have to raise revenue by closing loopholes on “the rich.” And as far as the chained CPI for Social Security is concerned, altering entitlements one iota will have every liberal interest group up in arms. The president himself has said the chained CPI is a non-starter.

That leaves repealing the medical device tax, something both parties want to do. But I daresay it’s hardly enough to satisfy the conservative base — especially since the Democrats are probably going to want to fiddle with the sequester as the price of repeal.

In the end, the trapped speaker will likely grab his 20 moderate allies and pick up a few conservatives who think default is a bad idea, and pass a clean CR and debt limit bill. No one is talking much about it yet, but if that’s the endgame, it likely puts Boehner’s speakership on the line.