Almost four months after their breakthrough session in Williamsburg, Va., House Republicans are heading into their most significant strategy discussion since.
At issue is what the GOP should demand in exchange for raising the debt ceiling again in the fall. Options on the table include major entitlement reforms, a pathway to tax reform, and repeal or delay of Obamacare.
Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team are planning an extended listening session at the two-hour closed-door meeting in the Capitol. Boehner, GOP sources say, is focused on not putting his thumb on the scale for any particular plan; he aims to facilitate an open process that will allow the conference to coalesce around its best ideas.
“The conference will work best if it’s a true conversation,” says one plugged-in Republican.
Because of that design, there is a surprising amount of uncertainty about where the discussion will lead. Even closed-door meetings here in the Capitol are usually stage-managed to a degree by party leaders, but Republican lawmakers and aides are not sure what to expect out of this one.
The one plan that holds most sway with conservatives right now is to call for entitlement reforms and other spending cuts that balance the budget in ten years.
Back in January, as Republicans headed to Williamsburg for their retreat, leaders from outside conservative groups joined in endorsing the ten-year plan, and Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth have both reiterated their support for it in this next round.
At Williamsburg, Republicans agreed to a short-term debt-ceiling increase coupled with “no budget, no pay” legislation that would hold the paychecks of lawmakers in escrow if their chamber of Congress failed to pass a budget by its statutory deadline.
Behind the scenes, Boehner made several other commitments to a group of top conservatives who have become an important center of power in the House GOP conference. The group, designated the “Fab Five” or the “Jedi Mind Council” by House Republicans, includes Representatives Paul Ryan, Tom Price, Jeb Hensarling, Jim Jordan, and Steve Scalise (the current chairman of the Republican Study Committee).
At the January retreat, the group released a joint statement announcing Boehner’s commitments, which included ensuring that spending levels under sequestration would go into effect and that House leaders would “work to put the country on the path to a balanced budget in ten years.”
Since then, the agreement has taken on signal importance among conservative rank-and-file members of the GOP, who refer to it with reverence as the “Williamsburg Accord.”
So far, Boehner has acted in line with the agreement and kept in close contact with the conservative working group, which originated several years ago and operated privately until the retreat.
Scalise’s Republican Study Committee recently surveyed members about their preferences for the next round of the debt-ceiling fight. “We want to tie the debt ceiling to the actual reforms that it will take to get the budget to balance in ten years,” Scalise said, mentioning that the survey showed strong support for that timeline among RSC members.
There are signs that GOP leaders are anxious about the political impact of pushing for cuts to entitlements.
National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Greg Walden, for one, could be an obstacle to following through on the agreement. Walden recently knocked President Barack Obama’s budget proposal as a “shocking attack on seniors” because it included reforms to Medicare. While Boehner half-heartedly rebuked him, the lack of fallout for Walden suggests that some top Republicans still fear touching entitlements.
Another major proposal recently floated by House Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp is to tie the debt ceiling to tax reform. Camp recently briefed colleagues on tax reform, stressing that it is very popular among voters, who report in polls that they strongly approve of simplifying the tax code. Popular support is key because the conventional wisdom is that tax reform, which involves eliminating popular tax deductions, must be bipartisan.
GOP aides, however, note that this tax-reform plan has been received coolly on the right, primarily because the vote to raise the debt ceiling would be tied only to a “pathway” for tax reform — overall rate and revenue targets, with the details to be filled in later. Conservatives are deeply distrustful of the fill-it-in-later approach, anticipating that Democrats would abandon their tax-reform promises after the GOP no longer has the leverage of a debt-ceiling vote.
The debt-ceiling deadline is months away, though; economists expect the limit will need to be raised in September or October. Theoretically, then, the GOP has enough time to put together a full tax-reform bill and tie that to the debt-ceiling vote.
Some House Republicans are also discussing a “goodie bag” or “kitchen sink” approach that would tie together a variety of smaller-ball items that could unite a GOP coalition behind the bill, e.g., approval of the Keystone pipeline; the tax-reform pathway; eliminating or delaying burdensome regulations; delaying implementation of Obamacare; and bills that protect the right of employers not to provide insurance coverage for abortions and birth control.
One thing is definitely clear: Passing a debt-ceiling increase through the House is going to be no small feat.
“At a minimum, for me to vote on a debt-ceiling increase, we have got to pass into law, agree upon it with the Senate and with the president . . . that we have a balanced budget in ten years,” said Representative John Fleming of Louisiana. “Now I want to see some things on top of that, but I’m not going to even consider it without that,” he said.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review.