The Corner

What Exactly Did Boehner Promise at Williamsburg?

In House Republicans’ discussions over the upcoming debt-ceiling fight, conservative lawmakers are revisiting an agreement struck at the GOP’s Williamsburg, Va., retreat in January.

At the retreat, Republicans adopted a short-term debt-ceiling increase that was coupled with “no budget, no pay” legislation, which forced Senate Democrats to adopt a budget in March for the first time in four years.

The decision on “no budget, no pay” was blessed by a group of five influential conservatives who met with Speaker John Boehner and the rest of the GOP leadership at the retreat, and set a larger strategy beyond just the imminent debt-ceiling issue. The deal, which is now reverently described as the “Williamsburg Accord” by rank-and-file members, included terms on sequestration, the House budget, and the next debt-ceiling increase.

On the next, upcoming debt-ceiling measure, Boehner promised it would “be tied to things that get us on the ten-year path to balance,” as South Carolina representative Mick Mulvaney put it at a “Conversations With Conservatives” event co-hosted by the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday.

The Ryan budget enacted by the House would balance in ten years and offers a sense of how ambitious this goal is. First, the budget assumes the repeal of much of Obamacare, which, it can safely be assumed, is something that President Obama would not sign into law. But it also includes significant entitlement reforms such as Medicare “premium support.”

And certainly, there are senior members of the Republican conference who are not anxious to tie the debt ceiling to such a bold plan. House Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp has discussed tying the debt ceiling to a path for tax reform, for example. Is GOP leadership still on board with this plan?

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said “we have just begun the process of talking with members, and – more importantly – with the American people, about the best way to increase the debt limit consistent with the ‘Boehner Rule,’ which requires cuts or reforms greater than the increase.”

A source familiar with the deal said “the agreement was that it would include cuts or reforms that put us ‘on the path to balance’ in ten years. The bill wouldn’t necessarily have to achieve balance in ten years all by itself.”

The difference between achieving balance in ten years and putting the country on a “path to balance” in ten years seems semantic. Representative Steve Scalise, the Republican Study Committee chairman, offered more detail for the first time at the Heritage event, envisioning a kind of sliding scale by which the closer the deal gets to a ten-year balanced budget, the further into the future the debt ceiling will be extended.

“If you look at the budget, it’s a ten-year budget – if the president did everything in that budget, you could make the argument that would be a ten-year increase in the debt ceiling,” Scalise, who was in the room when the deal was struck with Boehner, said. ”If the president doesn’t do all of those things, as you work your way down, the amount of time that the debt ceiling is increased should be corresponding to the size and seriousness of the reforms that are ultimately are agreed to that get us to that ten-year balance,” he explained. 

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