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On Debt Ceiling, Conservatives Counting on Leadership Promises

The restive right flank of the House Republican Conference appears willing to walk the plank Wednesday on a short-term debt limit extension, but it is vowing there will be “hell to pay” if GOP leaders don’t follow through on agreements they made to secure conservative support.

At the party’s retreat last week in Williamsburg, Va., Speaker John A. Boehner told a group of five influential conservatives that he would keep top-line spending levels at or below those set under the automatic sequestration cuts; the Ohio Republican also said he would work toward a budget that balances in 10 years.

At the meeting, the conservatives blessed the GOP plan to offer an almost four-month debt ceiling extension bill that would also withhold pay for members if their chamber of Congress does not pass a budget.

Boehner reaffirmed the commitment at a Republican Conference meeting Tuesday, telling members that House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan’s “goal is to advance a budget that balances within a decade. I applaud that goal, and share it. And as I said at the retreat, the sequester will be in place unless and until we get spending cuts and reforms to replace it, and that start us down a path to balance within the decade.”

Ryan was part of the group of five, which also included Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana and former RSC Chairmen Tom Price of Georgia, Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Jim Jordan of Ohio.

The additional concessions are playing a major role in shoring up support on the right, prompting positive reactions in some unlikely corners of the conference.

“Those with the influence look me in the eye and say this House will produce a budget that balances in 10 years. And there’s gonna be some tough stuff in there, but it’s telling the truth, it’s reality,” said Rep. David Schweikert, one of four members removed from coveted committee assignments in early December. The Arizona Republican said he was leaning toward voting for the measure.

“This is going to be the ultimate test of the relevancy of those we entrust with those leadership positions. And I believe there’d be hell to pay if they squander this,” Schweikert added.

Democratic opposition to the measure appears to be faltering. The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy on Tuesday saying President Barack Obama “would not oppose a short-term solution to the debt limit,” and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said he had not decided whether he will urge his colleagues to vote against the bill.

The “no budget, no pay” provision in the debt ceiling bill is similar to a proposal offered by Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee that a good number of his fellow Democrats co-sponsored in the 112th Congress, making it difficult for those members to oppose it now.

But Hoyer ripped it as a “gimmick” that is “probably unconstitutional” and “worthy of almost unrestrained derision.”

The 27th Amendment prohibits any law that changes the compensation of members of Congress from taking effect until there has been “an election of Representatives.” So any change in pay couldn’t take effect until 2015.

“I’m not sure why so many in the Republican Party are fixated on a budget,” Hoyer said, adding that he would “like to see a budget passed” but that the 2011 debt limit deal set spending levels for 10 years, making it unneeded.

The Maryland Democrat also objected to withholding members’ pay. “If they can’t get agreement, can’t pass a bill, you don’t pay them? I mean, they’re working on behalf of their constituents. I don’t think it makes any sense,” he said.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will ask Democratic members for their thoughts on the bill at Wednesday’s caucus meeting, a Democratic source said.

With 233 members, Republicans can ill afford to lose votes if they are attempting to reach 218 votes on their own. Because the GOP is mostly united around this bill, but is expecting some defections, even a handful of Democrats voting for the bill could determine whether it passes the House.

Republican Reps. Mo Brooks of Alabama, Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas and Paul Broun of Georgia said Tuesday that they will vote against the bill because it does not include spending cuts.

At least one member, Rep. Michael R. Turner of Ohio, plans to vote against the bill because it does not address looming defense cuts under the sequester. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the House Republican Conference chairwoman, said leadership is reassuring members of the House Armed Services Committee. “We’ll talk sequester and priorities in spending when we get done with the debt ceiling,” she said.

Other Republicans have said they are worried the bill is unconstitutional, including Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, although he later said he will likely support the bill.

At a closed-door meeting of the RSC, Rep. Randy Neugebauer of Texas presented another complaint relating to the way the bill is written.

The bill says the debt ceiling “shall not apply” until May 18. Neugebauer expressed concern that the Obama administration could take on a large amount of new debt during that period, obviating the need for an increase to the debt ceiling after it lapses.

However, it’s unclear whether that is likely or even possible, and leaders said the bill prohibits such a scenario.

Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.

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