When Representative Phil Roe took his “specialty boards” in medical school in the 1970s in Tennessee, the test proctors wouldn’t give him any hint — “a head nod, or anything” — about whether he had just gotten the question right or wrong.
That’s what yesterday’s House Republican conference meeting was like, Roe said, with Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders declining to give any suggestion about which direction they would like to go on the debt ceiling.
In contrast, rank-and-file members produced a cacophonous “brainstorming session,” with nearly 40 lawmakers speaking to their peers over about two hours.
“Really, we’re just kind of throwing ideas up in the air, free associating, looking at all the different possibilities. Leadership did not submit a plan, and we all love that, because that’s exactly what we don’t want,” said Representative John Fleming of Louisiana.
Like party leaders, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan did not speak. But his vice chairman, Representative Tom Price (Ga.), did, highlighting the crucial importance of winning the messaging battle over the issue during the August recess.
If any idea has currency with conservatives, it’s tying the debt ceiling to balancing the budget in ten years. Texas representative Joe Barton offered a particularly impassioned plea for this plan, nembers said, something of a rallying cry to follow through on the promise of the GOP’s budget, a nonbinding plan that also balances in ten years.
“All I said was, ‘We’ve already passed the Ryan budget, let’s use it. Tie it to the debt ceiling with an enforcement mechanism with some teeth in it and pass that. Because we’ve already agreed to it and the American people certainly agree that we need to balance the budget in ten years,’” Barton told National Review.
No one urged against using the debt ceiling as leverage to cut spending or enact other legislative priorities, but a number of members strongly urged against a “clean” debt-ceiling increase sought by Democrats and President Barack Obama.
House Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp (Mich.) discussed connecting the debt ceiling to tax reform, but some lawmakers later objected to that plan, saying spending cuts were a higher priority. “We like it, we want it,” Fleming said of tax reform. “The problem with it is most of us feel like tax reform needs to be part of a global plan that includes entitlement reform and reduced spending, so I’m a little hesitant to just say let’s do that first. I think that’s kind of putting the cart before the horse. I think we all agree the first thing we need to do is cutting spending.”
Other ideas — including the “REINS Act,” which requires Congress to approve some regulations; freedom-of-conscience legislation; and focusing on the repeal or delay of Obamacare — were also discussed.
The Ryan budget passed by the House assumes repeal of Obamacare. So if House Republicans were to press for enactment of the Ryan budget in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, that would entail repealing Obamacare — which is why there are pangs of doubt within the GOP leadership about whether that strategy is realistic. Further complicating the picture is an idea floating among Republicans that the resulting bill should receive unanimous support from the GOP conference — 233 votes versus the 218 needed for a bare majority. That could make an already difficult job for whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) even harder.
No decisions were made at the meeting. In fact, there are likely to be one or two similar sessions before Republicans close in on an agreement. Because of an improving deficit picture, there is still plenty of time: The debt-ceiling vote is expected to take place in the fall. In the meantime, hearing the opinions of rank-and-file members is crucial for the leadership because it gives them the “lay of the land,” ensuring that future decisions won’t be out of step with the conference.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review.