As clock ticks on debt limit, Republicans rustle up a plan

It took several false starts, but House Republican leaders have finally decided what they want to trade for an increase in the debt ceiling, which must be lifted by the end of the month in order to avoid a default.

At a late-afternoon meeting of the House Republican Conference, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House would vote Wednesday to raise the debt ceiling, and that he would attach a measure that would undo cuts to the cost-of-living formula for military retirees that were part of the budget deal negotiated last year. The measure, which saved $6 billion, was unpopular among many lawmakers who were uncomfortable with reducing veterans’ benefits.

In order to offset the price tag, the bill would also extend the sequester cuts to 2024, a House leadership aide told CBS News congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes.

The big question: will it pass?

There’s doubt on both the Republican and Democratic side. Some Republicans won’t increase the debt ceiling under any conditions, viewing it as a violation of their promise to come to Washington to cut spending.  And Democrats have stood by the White House’s position that they will not negotiate over increasing the debt ceiling, which they view as a fundamental responsibility of the Congress.

“With just days to prevent a default, Congress must act immediately. House Republicans have indicated that they intend to demand concessions in return for not holding our creditworthiness hostage a fourth time. To do so would be foolish and irresponsible. I – and the American people – hope that our Republican colleagues will use the next several days to prevent economic ruin rather than invite it. If they do, we Democrats will help them,” House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., wrote in a U.S. News and World Report op-ed Monday morning.

White House spokesman Jay Carney wouldn’t address possible provisions in his briefing with reporters Monday before Boehner announced his plan.

“I'm not going to get into a ‘what if this were in the bill or that were in the bill,'’’ he said. ‘‘Our position has not changed. It hasn’t changed for a long, long time. We’re not negotiating over Congress’ responsibility to pay its bills.’’

Buoying Boehner’s chances is the fact that some of the House’s most ardent conservatives who have opposed increasing the debt ceiling in the past are signaling that they recognize a fight is futile.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., told the Washington Post Wednesday, “There is a pragmatism here…You’ve got to know when to hold them and when to fold them. My assessment is that most of us don’t think it’s the time to fight.”

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, suggested that the best route for the party is to let Democrats bear the brunt of the responsibility in extending borrowing authority, and also the brunt of the blame.

Adding to the sense of urgency is the fact that the House has just a handful of working days before Feb. 27, the last day that the Treasury Department’s “extraordinary measures” will allow the U.S. to continue meeting its financial obligations. Lawmakers leave town Wednesday evening for a state work period and won’t return until Feb. 25, just two days before the deadline.

On the Senate side, meanwhile, restoring the full military pensions is a popular idea. Democrats and Republicans joined together, 94 to 0, in a test vote on the measure Monday. Republicans will offer amendments to offset the cuts from other parts of the budget.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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