WASHINGTON — House Republicans, increasingly isolated from even some of their strongest supporters more than a week into a government shutdown, began Wednesday to consider a path out of their fiscal dead end that would raise the debt ceiling for a few weeks as they press for a broader deficit-reduction deal.
That approach could possibly set aside the fight over the new health-care law, which prompted the shutdown and which some Republicans will be reluctant to abandon.
In a meeting with the most ardent House conservatives, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the chairman of the House Budget Committee, laid out a package focused on an overhaul of Medicare and a path toward a comprehensive simplification of the tax code.
“We’re more in the ideas stage right now,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. “There is a developing consensus that this is a lot bigger than an Obamacare discussion.”
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At the same time, congressional leaders from both parties began some preliminary discussions aimed at reopening the government and raising the statutory borrowing limit. And President Obama, who invited House Democrats on Wednesday, asked all House Republicans to the White House on Thursday, an invitation Speaker John Boehner whittled down to a short list of attendees he wants to negotiate a compromise.
Democrats showed their own cracks. Twenty-six House Democrats planned to attend a bipartisan event Thursday morning with the group No Labels, calling for the immediate commencement of negotiations, a challenge to the president and to Democratic leaders who say they will not negotiate until the government reopens and the debt ceiling is lifted.
In the meeting with House Democrats on Wednesday evening, Obama held firm to his stated intention to negotiate with Republicans only after the government is reopened and the debt ceiling is raised. He told Democrats that if he gives in now, Republican demands would be endless.
“The only thing not on their list is my own resignation,” he told Democrats, according to a lawmaker in the room.
With the impact of the shutdown starting to intensify, House Republicans were taking criticism from some of their longtime backers. Business groups demanded the immediate reopening of the government, and benefactors like Koch Industries publicly distanced themselves from the shutdown fight.
Republicans acknowledged the pressure is mounting on them. On Wednesday, the National Retail Federation joined other reliably Republican business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers in asking House Republicans to relent.
“We strongly support passage of both a continuing resolution to provide for funding of the federal government into the next fiscal year and a measure to raise the nation’s debt ceiling,” the National Retail Federation’s president, Matthew Shay, said in a letter to Congress that pointed out economic indicators showing the shutdown has hurt consumer spending and depressed consumer confidence.
In the meantime, Koch Industries accused the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Wednesday of spreading “false information” about the company by suggesting it was behind the move to tie a demand to keep the government open only if financing was eliminated for Obama’s health-care law.
“Koch believes that Obamacare will increase deficits, lead to an overall lowering of the standard of health care and raise taxes,” Philip Ellender, the company’s chief spokesman, wrote in a letter to senators. “However, Koch has not taken a position on the legislative tactic of tying the continuing resolution to defunding Obamacare, nor have we lobbied on legislative programs defunding Obamacare.”
Ryan’s meeting with the conservative Republican Study Committee seemed only to divide its ranks on the most critical issue: whether to set aside the fight over the president’s health-care law and focus on long-term deficit reduction.
The group’s leader, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., emerged still adamant that any way forward must include a hit to the Affordable Care Act, even if the package focused on entitlement programs — also called “mandatory” spending.
“We’ve always talked about mandatory spending being addressed in a debt-ceiling increase, but keep in mind Obamacare is part of mandatory spending,” he said.
Other conservatives showed a new flexibility. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., a fierce critic of the health-care law, came out of the meeting and said: “My primary focus is on minimizing risk of insolvency and bankruptcy. There are many paths you can take to get there.
“Socialized medicine is just one of the component parts of our debt and deficits that put us at financial risk. Are there paths that can be created that do not include socialized medicine?” he asked. “Yes.”
Members suggested they could support a lifting of the debt ceiling for several weeks to allow Republicans to unite around a deficit-reduction and tax-overhaul package.
“If we cannot get an agreement with the president at some point in time in the next few days, we’ll look at something short term,” said Scalise, echoing a suggestion Obama floated Tuesday.
But, the congressman said, even that should have spending cuts attached. He also said that a debt-ceiling hike of even three weeks should include a measure passed by the House denying federal subsidies to congressmen, White House officials and their staff members, who already must buy health insurance on the Affordable Care Act’s new exchanges. And, he suggested, conservatives might insist on another House bill that would allow the Treasury to borrow enough money to pay off debts as they become due, taking away the threat of a government default.
All of those measures would be stiffly resisted by Senate Democrats and the White House.
Still, lawmakers did appear to be looking for a way forward after days of simply staring at one another. Ahead of the Wednesday meeting with House Democrats at the White House, Obama invited all House Republicans to a get-together Thursday. Boehner saw a meeting between the president and 232 Republicans as a photo opportunity with no chance of producing substantive discussions. So he reduced the invitation list to 18.
That will at least give the appearance of negotiations if it fails to prompt actual substantive talks.
“Finally, the White House has invited congressional leaders to talk,” Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said in a statement. “I am hopeful the president is serious about finding a deal that results in meaningful spending and entitlement reforms, judiciously extends U.S. government borrowing authority, reopens all federal agencies, and paves the way for the enactment of future appropriations bills so that this lurching from crisis to crisis can be put to an end.”