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Why Republicans Sent a Debt Limit Test Balloon, Not a Debt Limit Plan

If it seemed like Republicans were unclear about the debt limit extension plan leaders laid out in conference Thursday morning, there’s good reason.

GOP leaders laid out a plan that would extend the debt limit until Nov. 22. But they haven’t set any votes — and the plan is still in flux.

Republican leadership seems to be floating a test balloon on the plan, presenting the proposal to the conference with plenty of caveats and escape hatches.

And there are a number of reasons for the timidity.

First, House Republicans are sending their 18 negotiators to the White House today, and they’re hoping to gauge the president’s openness to negotiating a broader entitlements overhaul deal in exchange for the debt limit hike. By sending over their leaders to the White House, then announcing the plan, it might look like the president is starting to negotiate. That could provide Republicans cover from a conservative wing who sees this short-term extension as a cave.

Second, Republicans are going to whip the proposal during their afternoon vote series. Whipping it before formally announcing it gives them a sense of where the conference is at, and it allows them to back away or alter it if it’s clear Republicans just aren’t onboard.

By squishily announcing the plan, Republicans are also able to gauge House Democrats. If Democrats get behind the plan, the Republican whip operation can breathe a sigh of relief; GOP leadership knows a number of members in the conference simply won’t support the plan. Democrats actually matter on this vote. And Republicans seem to know it.

This six-week debt limit extension, and the timidity with which it was announced, portend a fragile Republican Conference, and a leadership that is desperately trying to listen but also lead.

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