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House GOP Leadership, Conservatives Huddle on Debt Ceiling

On the House floor and in front of the television cameras, the GOP’s agenda this week is all budget, all the time. But behind the scenes, the discussion at the highest levels has moved forward to the coming debt ceiling fight.

GOP leadership met with a “working group” of five influential conservatives on March 14 to discuss the issue and agreed to hold a special, extended closed-door meeting with the entire Republican Conference after the Easter recess to walk through the coming battle.

Conservatives are coalescing around the idea of demanding entitlement reforms in the next debt ceiling fight.

“The framework is to get the budget to balance,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a member of the working group who chaired the conservative Republican Study Committee in the last Congress.

“To us, the debt ceiling’s always represented a symptom of the spending problem. And so, as we approach the debt ceiling, in order to increase it, a lot of us feel you ought to also be working on fixing the structural problems that keep causing us to hit the debt ceiling,” said Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the RSC’s current chairman and another member of the group.

The conference still needs to “hash out” which “solutions that we want to see included in any kind of debt ceiling resolution,” Scalise added.

At a news conference Tuesday morning, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said he would talk with members after the Easter recess about the issue. “Our goal here is to get this country on a path to balance the budget over 10 years,” he said.

The previously undisclosed meeting was the first time the working group sat down with House leaders since the GOP’s January retreat in Williamsburg, Va., although the two parties have had informal discussions in the meantime.

The plan for an extended conference meeting also mirrors the retreat in allowing fractious Republicans to hash out big decisions behind closed doors, a far more inclusive process than strategy deliberations in the last Congress.

The conservative working group — which includes Scalise and Jordan as well as Reps. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, Tom Price of Georgia and Jeb Hensarling of Texas — has emerged as a new power center in the conference, brokering a peace between Boehner and the party’s right flank over past months.

For example, a recent RSC meeting turned into something like a unity rally for the continuing resolution, which saw only 14 GOP defections even as Republicans were forsaking an opportunity to leverage new spending cuts.

In Williamsburg, the group pitched the strategy Boehner has followed since then: a short-term debt ceiling increase and a House budget that balances in 10 years. Boehner also agreed to keep top-line spending levels at the levels they would be under the sequester.

At the meeting last week with leadership, the lawmakers also discussed passing a “prioritization” bill that establishes how the government operates in the event the debt ceiling increase is not agreed to.

That idea has been controversial in the past, even among some Republicans, who argue that it would not truly mitigate the enormous harm of going over the debt ceiling cliff. The legislation also faces technical hurdles given the government’s complicated payment system.

The short-term debt ceiling increase enacted in January expires May 16, although the Treasury Department at that time will be able to use “extraordinary” measures to extend government spending into the summer.

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