Options Slim as House Republicans Seek Votes on Debt Rise

House Republican leaders are narrowing the list of conditions they would seek in exchange for votes to raise the U.S. debt limit.

Lacking support, top Republicans dropped efforts to link a debt-ceiling boost to a measure revoking an Obamacare insurance provision, said two party leadership aides who sought anonymity yesterday to discuss private talks. A proposal to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline also was abandoned even though it’s popular among Republicans, the aides said.

“We’re still looking for the pieces to this puzzle,” House Speaker John Boehner said today, joking that he’d have trouble finding enough Republican votes for a debt ceiling increase even if sainthood for Mother Teresa were attached.

“We need Democratic support in order to pass it,” said Boehner, an Ohio Republican. “We’ve got broad support in our caucus, but I don’t think we have 218 votes.”

Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has urged lawmakers to act quickly to raise the cap, saying the government’s ability to meet its obligations will run out before the end of this month.

A suspension of the federal borrowing limit, enacted by Congress in October, is scheduled to expire tomorrow. The Treasury will take extraordinary measures to avoid the borrowing limit, though that ability will run out by the end of the month, Lew has said.

Seeking Democrats

“I take Jack Lew at his word” on the effective debt-limit date, Boehner said. Asked when the House must act, he replied, “late February.”

The House is scheduled to be in Washington for three days next week before taking a week off for the President’s Day recess. Members are set to return to Washington on Feb. 25, with four scheduled working days until the end of the month.

President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats insist they won’t negotiate over raising the debt limit. Republicans are just as adamant about extracting some kind of concession. Still, they haven’t ruled out a debt-ceiling increase without conditions as a last-ditch option to avoid default.

Republicans are now floating options that include averting cuts in Medicare payments to doctors and restoring cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees that were reduced in a December budget deal, said three House Republican aides who spoke on condition of anonymity.

‘Enough Drama’

Representative Mac Thornberry, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said restoring the military benefits probably wouldn’t be included in a final measure because the change would increase debt.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” the Texas Republican said today at a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington. “Backing away from it now on a debt ceiling seems to me to be exactly the wrong thing to do.”

Thornberry said lawmakers generally want to avoid “confrontation and drama.”

“I don’t think anybody wants to provoke a crisis,” he said. “We’ve had enough drama.”

Republicans are divided on what to ask for, and also whether to demand an offset at all or offer a clean debt-limit increase and rely on Democrats to vote for it.

Idaho Republican Raul Labrador told reporters yesterday that Democrats would “reject even the most reasonable alternative” on the debt-ceiling increase. Because Republicans don’t want a “cataclysmic fight,” it makes sense to accept that and allow a clean borrowing-limit bill, he said.

‘Telling Moment’

“This is a telling moment where we have to take steps to rein in the wasteful Washington spending,” Missouri Republican Vicky Hartzler said yesterday. “We have to get something for that vote.”

Representative Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said members of his party are “willing to talk about any other legislative policy issue on its own merits.”

“But Republicans don’t get to enact their policy agenda in exchange for paying the country’s bills on time,” said Van Hollen of Maryland.

Representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia said some fellow Democrats may resist any provision Republicans attach to the debt limit, even if it’s something Democrats otherwise would support.

“Once you go down that road, given this crowd, it’ll go somewhere you don’t like,” Connolly said in an interview. “All of the signals are that we’re not going to do that.”

Government Shutdown

House Republican demands to roll back parts of Obama’s health-care law or promote the Keystone pipeline as part of a debt-ceiling increase contributed to a 16-day partial government shutdown in October. Congress ultimately suspended the limit without conditions.

Separately, three committee leaders agreed on a plan for a new system to reimburse doctors who treat Medicare patients, said Republican Representative Charles Boustany of Louisiana and Democratic Representative Henry Waxman of California. Doctors would receive an annual rise of 0.5 percent for five years, and afterward a committee would recommend future payments.

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