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House GOP Leaders Consider Four-Year Debt Limit Deal

With the administration’s debt ceiling deadline fast approaching, House Republican leaders are considering a four-year debt limit increase that would take the issue off the table for the rest of President Barack Obama’s presidency.

The plan would, however, come at no easy price for Obama, who pledged as recently as Monday morning not to negotiate with Republicans on a debt ceiling hike. Republicans would demand major tax and entitlement changes — the latter of which has been anathema to many Democrats — and they could also ask for movement on the sequester and an expiring continuing resolution that must be dealt with in the next three months.

The idea was one of many brought up over Sunday and Monday, as Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and his leadership team and staff held a strategy session in Warrenton, Va.

“We have an opportunity to inject years of certainty while doing some fundamental tax reform and entitlement reform,” said Rep. Steve Southerland II of Florida, the sophomore class leadership representative, who was at the meeting.

In addition to the four-year plan, ideas for extending the debt ceiling ranged from a one- or two-year increase to one that would last only 30 or 60 days.

Still, the ultimate decision on which path to take will not be forged until the rank and file have their say at the full conference retreat, which starts Wednesday in Williamsburg, Va. It is a function of the decentralized power that Boehner holds: He sets the agenda, but it is up to his conference whether to accept it.

“We all agreed we need to get the input from our conference on how to move forward,” said Conference Vice Chairwoman Lynn Jenkins of Kansas. “We know we have to be unified because division hinders our ability to get things done.”

The retreat’s theme of “One Conference, Many Voices,” belies just how wounded, fractured and lacking in direction the House Republican Conference is as it enters the 113th Congress. Boehner was rebuffed by his conference in attempts to pass deals to avert the fiscal cliff. And a few members went on to voice votes of no confidence when they tried to mount a coup against Boehner before he was re-elected to the speakership on Jan. 3.

So in that respect, the retreat will be about much more than just the next three months. It will be about defining the next two years.

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘What is winning in this scenario?’” a GOP leadership aide said. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘What is the role of the House Republican Conference in an Obama administration?’”

Leadership members realize they have two years worth of legislation to manage, and at the leadership retreat, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia laid out some of the big-ticket legislation that must be reauthorized, such as a transportation bill and the No Child Left Behind education law.

An immigration overhaul is also on the horizon, and at the conference retreat, Gov. Luis Fortuno of Puerto Rico, once the commonwealth’s resident commissioner in Congress, will share a panel discussion with Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell during which the issue is sure to come up, according to aides.

The conference will also hear from conservative media figures such as Bill Kristol, Ramesh Ponnuru and Kim Strassel. Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and Domino’s Pizza CEO J. Patrick Doyle will also attend.

There is, of course, a recognition that the pressing issues of the day must be dealt with first. Absent an agreement among the conference about how to tackle the debt ceiling, much of the retreat will be devoted to the issue, with large chunks of time allotted for general conference discussion.

While the conservative bloc could possibly back a four-year extension, the concessions they would demand from the other side could end up being more than Democrats want to put on the table.

Meanwhile, temporary debt limit patches might be just as unpalatable to Republicans, who could be open to primary challengers from the right in 2014, and who could rightly claim that members voted several times in a two-year span to raise the debt ceiling.

Some conservative members of the Republican Study Committee believe they should allow the country to pass over the debt limit because they remain skeptical of leadership’s dedication to reduced spending and believe reaching the debt limit would force the cuts immediately, rather than having to rely on cuts down the road, as they did with the 2011 debt limit deal.

“Frankly, it sounds like 2011 all over again.  . . .  A lot of our guys are just sick of that,” one conservative aide said. “I’m not entirely unconvinced that we’re not heading in the same direction.”

As a result, they will likely push bills, such as those touted by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., and Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., that would prioritize spending and allow items at the bottom of the list to be cut if the debt limit is reached. RSC Chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana alluded to the plan in a Monday statement.

“Hitting the debt ceiling does not immediately trigger a default unless [Obama’s] administration fails to do its job and prioritize our debt payments. Default is not an option unless President Obama and his administration choose it to be,” he said.

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