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On Debt, GOP Consults Itself

After Losing Votes on the Budget, House Leaders Want Everyone Involved

House Republican leaders are trying to unify their Conference around a set of debt limit negotiating principles, hoping to avoid a repeat of the internal breakdown they had over spending cuts earlier this month.

Republicans are prepping for what is expected to be a months-long fight with Democrats and the White House over a politically fraught vote to increase the nation’s debt limit, something many of their Members vowed not to do. Formal negotiations with the White House and Senate begin next month, and House Republicans are using these weeks to get a clear idea of what the Conference will tolerate, without delving into specifics.

The principles of a debt limit deal for Republicans could include “immediate” reductions in mandatory and discretionary spending, hard spending caps, federal workforce reductions (possibly through attrition) and a spending cut trigger tied to debt as it relates to gross domestic product.

Lawmakers participating in the upcoming meetings include House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and House Assistant Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.).

The meetings are largely seen as public theater; Republicans already are preparing to use the sessions as a public forum for hammering Democrats.

But while they may be unified against the opposite party, House Republicans have a major internal split to attend to after 59 of their Members defected from party leaders to vote against a six-month spending bill despite the role of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in orchestrating the deal. The package, which passed the House with Democratic support, cuts $38.5 billion in government spending, far more than President Barack Obama had originally proposed, yet below the $61 billion House Republicans wanted.

Several rank-and-file Members expressed their unhappiness with that final deal, saying it did not go far enough.

So far, much of the GOP leaders’ focus on the debt limit has been on bringing their Conference together on what to extract in exchange for supporting a final package. Republican leaders believe they have a stronger negotiating position if they speak with a single voice.

Several options are on the table, including adding a balanced-budget amendment and tying further debt limit increases to the GDP or deficits that Congress must hit or face spending cuts.

But Republican aides said the core of the GOP’s position will also include mandatory immediate reductions in discretionary and mandatory spending.

“If we ask for more credit, we must prove worthy of it,” Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring said. “That’s why President Obama, Vice President Biden and the leaders of their party are obligated to ensure that any debt limit increase is accompanied by serious reforms that immediately reduce federal spending and reverse the culture of debt hovering over Washington.”

According to a GOP leadership aide, proposed cuts that Republicans view as immediate include hard caps on discretionary spending, cuts to Medicaid spending and reductions in the overall size of the federal workforce, potentially by limiting the number of new workers hired to replace retiring workers.

House Republicans also are working on a trigger to impose cuts. According to the aide, the trigger “would ensure that real reforms are enacted by a date certain and that the size of the debt limit increase will be directly tied to the amount of real savings that are actually enacted within that period.”

Republican leaders are scheduled to hold a conference call Tuesday with GOP lawmakers. In addition to discussing how the budget written by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is playing in their districts, the debt limit also is expected to come up.

Boehner has publicly shied away from outlining any specifics and has said that a vote on the debt limit must include “real cuts.”

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the “Speaker has made it very clear the American public will not tolerate an increase in the debt ceiling without real spending cuts and reform so we can keep cutting to help reduce the uncertainty that is making it harder for the private sector to create jobs.”

Senate Republicans are taking similar steps to build a unified front for the negotiations.

According to a GOP leadership aide, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has been quietly “hosting meetings with Members for months” in an attempt to gauge where his Members are on the issue and to put together a list of demands.

“The field is narrowing,” the aide added, saying Senate Republicans are now discussing a handful of options including hard spending reductions and a balanced-budget amendment.

McConnell and his Conference are eyeing a plan by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to impose caps on spending that are tied to a gradually reduced share of the GDP. Conservative economists have touted that idea as a way to rein in spending and maintain cuts over the long term.

One area of potential disagreement between leadership in both chambers and the party’s conservative base is over the inclusion of a balanced-budget amendment. Conservatives such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) have pushed to include the constitutional amendment in the agreement.

But leaders appear wary of such a demand, a senior Senate GOP aide said, explaining that it includes virtually no political price for Obama if he agrees to it and would not go into effect for years, if ever.

“It needs to be something the president signs. … It doesn’t cost the president anything,” the aide said.

House leaders have similar concerns about the balanced-budget amendment. A veteran aide questioned the demand for the amendment, noting that although it is a worthwhile goal, “it’s a nice talking point that doesn’t do anything in real time.”