Congress' Debt Ceiling Debate Is Just Getting Fired Up

House Speaker John Boehner has a lot of GOP wrangling to do before debt ceiling vote.

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew delivers remarks during an event about the federal debt limit at the Bipartisan Policy Center Feb. 3, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has warned Congress his department would have to invoke “extraordinary measures” to keep the U.S. paying its bills on time beginning Friday.

Raising the debt ceiling shouldn’t come without a cost – that’s what House Republicans think at least. It’s just not clear what exactly they are asking for and whether they can unite behind any one proposal.

While Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warned Congress his department would have to invoke “extraordinary measures” to keep the U.S. paying its bills on time beginning Friday, he marked the end of February was the hard and fast debt-ceiling deadline. That means House Republicans don’t have to make any decisions just yet.

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Republicans have moved on from their initial demands to tie the debt ceiling to the White House’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline or changes to the Affordable Care Act. But, the caucus is still groping for an issue that raises the debt ceiling and provides the GOP with a political win.

The new laundry list, however, may not be the debt busting or job creating proposals Republicans have demanded in the past. In fact some of the proposals are actually meant to attract Democrats. A few Republicans have called on House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to restore a cost of living adjustment to military retirees, something Democrats also favor. Others have suggested Boehner slow the cuts to the so-called doc fix, payments for doctors who treat patients on Medicare.

“We are still looking for the pieces to this puzzle,” Boehner said during a press conference Thursday. “We have got time to do this.”

Part of the problem for Boehner is there is a coalition of tea party Republicans who won’t vote for a debt ceiling increase no matter what is attached. Therefore, finding roughly 218 Republican votes is tough even with hot-button issues like the Keystone Pipeline to sweeten the deal.

“Mother Teresa is a saint now, but if the Congress wanted to make her a saint and attach that to the debt ceiling we probably couldn’t get 2018 Republican votes,” Boehner joked Thursday.
The negotiations about how to proceed could drag on for awhile. Thursday, Republicans did not appear to be in any rush to move quickly on the debt ceiling bill. Instead, they signaled, they wanted to have a conversation.

“Every time you get to a debt ceiling vote, I think you should talk about debt,” says Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., a member of House Republican leadership. “That needs to be the dominant part of the conversation and that just so rarely happens here.”

The important thing, many said, was coming to the right consensus, deciding as a caucus how to proceed and then staying united.

“It’s like a game of chess, you got to figure out what’s your best move because once it is made it is made,” says Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who is still advocating Republicans make changes to Obamacare.

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Some conservatives, however, have encouraged Boehner to proceed on a clean debt ceiling bill to avoid drama and upset the party’s standing among voters in the midterm election. Even Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who has said he will not vote to increase the debt ceiling without major reductions in spending, said he advocated for that approach. Many are resigned to the reality that the debt ceiling will have to be raised eventually and while it may be unpopular back home, the economy cannot grow if the government doesn’t pay its bills on time.

“Get it done, get it over with instead of bringing it to the edge,” says Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. Simpson is in an unusually tough position this year during the debt ceiling debate as he faces a primary challenge from tea party and fiscal conservative Bryan Smith this May.

“Nobody wants us to vote to increase the debt limit,” he says. “It is the most unpopular vote that you are going to cast, but everyone knows you got to do it.”