Cantor’s Debt-Ceiling Vow, Cont’d

by Jonathan Strong

This morning I reported that Majority Leader Eric Cantor told Republicans at a closed-door conference meeting that while they were essentially punting on the Obamacare fight with the upcoming continuing resolution, the House GOP would demand a one-year delay to Obamacare in the debt ceiling fight that will follow the CR.

While an Obamacare delay is definitely in the mix for the debt-ceiling fight, discussions with additional sources have raised questions about whether Cantor’s words on the subject were a commitment or something short of that.

The original source for the information was Representative John Fleming, who sketched out the plan as such: following the punt on the CR, the debt ceiling fight would come just as Obamacare is hitting new lows in popularity.

Fleming: What we’re looking at doing is . . .

Strong: [Describing Cantor's CR plan]: You send it over there, they vote against defunding, and send a clean CR to the president…

Fleming: Then, somewhere along the way we get to the debt ceiling, and then we attach a delay of Obamacare implementation – including all the taxes, everything – for the same period, which would probably be a year.

I then asked Fleming if Cantor’s presentation was as much about debt ceiling strategy as it was CR? No, Fleming said, the vast majority was about the CR, “but the follow-on to that, which he discussed briefly, and I discussed with him off line, is really to come in with the delay.”

It seemed clear to me that Cantor had indicated this was the GOP’s plan. But I went to Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper for confirmation, e-mailing him: “a Member said that Cantor said in his presentation that in the debt ceiling fight Rs would demand a 1 yr delay to Obamacare. True?”

“True,” he replied.

Later on, within minutes after the story ran, Cooper called, saying that while it was his mistake, the story as written was too black and white: While Cantor and other GOP leaders are actively considering an Obamacare delay as a debt-ceiling demand, it’s too early to say that that will definitely be required in any bill that raises the debt ceiling.

Partly that’s because the strategy that GOP leadership is considering is putting together a “menu” of debt-ceiling options from which President Obama can choose. Each item on the menu will correspond with raising the debt ceiling for an amount of time that is commensurate with the importance of the reform or size of the spending cut in question.

In that sense, while an Obamacare delay might be a big item on the menu, it doesn’t mean that’s where the negotiations between Speaker Boehner and Obama would lead. Potentially, Obama would reject that option outright and the two parties would move on to more fertile ground for a deal.

I also checked with several other sources about Cantor’s exact words. The exchange about an Obamacare delay came during the question-and-answer session when Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who has introduced legislation to delay Obamacare for one year, spoke up.

In Cantor’s response to Blackburn, he touched briefly and favorably on the idea of tying the debt-ceiling increase to a delay but didn’t make a commitment, sources said.

And Fleming, when I caught up to him to ask further questions, had changed his tune by a bit. While Cantor had indicated he was positive on the idea in a conversation with Fleming a week ago, he didn’t make a firm commitment in his remarks to the group.

“He did not commit,” Fleming said, “he just alluded to the fact that we were going to have to work on the debt ceiling. He agreed with a delay of Obamacare. But to couple those, the way he did in a personal conversation with me, he did not say that out in the group.”

“When I spoke with him last week, he was very interested, because I came to him with that suggestion . . . He seemed very interested in that,” Fleming added.

Now, House conservatives are actually demanding, in return for their votes on the CR, a firm commitment from House leadership on using the debt ceiling to get an Obamacare delay. Since Republicans can only afford to lose a few votes if they need a full majority on their own, they will have plenty of leverage to force the point.

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