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Divided and Uneasy



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As the debt-ceiling deadline nears, Republicans remain divided on how to proceed. Discussions with Democrats over the weekend yielded little progress, and the leadership hasn’t settled on a strategy. Instead, there are several groups competing for influence as lawmakers mull their options and an uneasy consensus emerges. How the GOP’s turf battle unfolds on Monday will say much about whether the Senate or House acts first, and whether the contours of any proposal can win broad support.

In the House, budget chairman Paul Ryan’s allies tell me he’s leading the talks, and looking hard at a package that would extend the debt ceiling for six weeks and include a handful of conservative provisions, such as strengthening the eligibility requirements for Obamacare and an elimination of the federal contributions for congressional health-care plans. But this gambit is far from policy; it’s more of a contingency plan, should Republicans struggle to craft an alternative.

“A lot of what we do is going to depend on three things: the markets, the Senate, and our next conference meeting,” says a House GOP leadership aide. “We’re working with our members to finalize our plan, and we’re keeping an eye on the Senate. We’re also going to be ready to pass a short-term, six-week bill, should we all need some more time to come together.”

In the Senate, Susan Collins’s plan is gaining traction, especially after minority leader Mitch McConnell endorsed it on Sunday. Her pitch: Keep the spending levels from sequestration, repeal the medical-device tax, end the shutdown, extend the debt ceiling, and – like Ryan’s rumored back-pocket plan – strengthen Obamacare’s eligibility requirements. Senate Democrats, though, are unhappy with McConnell’s unwillingness to budge on sequestration, and that battle over spending levels may keep the plan shelved.

Late Sunday, Republican staffers from both chambers were scrambling to reconcile the competing Republican strategies in the House and Senate, but communication has been sporadic. Senate GOP insiders are unsure of whether Senate Democrats will even negotiate unless Republicans cave on sequestration, and House insiders are unsure of whether Speaker John Boehner can keep his fragile conference united.

If things fall apart, Senator Lindsey Graham tells me he’s going to “object” to any deal that doesn’t include a vote on whether congressional employees should continue to receive federal contributions to their health-care plans. For Graham, the effort would be a final attempt to make Democrats endure an uncomfortable vote, should Republicans stumble.

Meanwhile, GOP enthusiasm for the showdown, from both conservatives and grandees, is waning. Members are spending considerable time calling one another to lament, and they’re worried about fading public support. “We can’t get lower in the polls. We’re down to blood relatives and paid staffers now,” said Senator John McCain on CBS’s Face the Nation. “But we’ve got to turn this around, and the Democrats had better help.” 



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