As debt ceiling deadline looms, Republicans search for a strategy

With just days until the U.S. maxes out its borrowing authority, the House GOP has yet to decide what they’re going to ask for in return for an increase in the debt ceiling.

“No decisions have been made,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, after a meeting with his conference Tuesday morning. “The goal here is to increase the debt ceiling. Nobody wants to default on our debt. But while we’re doing this we ought to do something about the jobs and the economy.”

But what exactly that “something” is remains an unanswered question. Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have made it clear that Republicans are not interested in a so-called “clean” debt ceiling increase where they increase the country’s borrowing authority but receive no spending cuts or new legislation in return.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has written to leaders in Congress multiple times to say that the nation will reach the debt limit on Friday, Feb. 7, and that he can only keep paying bills by using “extraordinary measures” until late February. Putting extra pressure on the government’s obligations is tax refund period, which is concentrated in late February because the tax filing season was delayed by the government shutdown.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that House leaders had settled on one of two strategies: trade a one-year extension of the debt limit for either an approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline or a repeal of the “risk corridors” in the Affordable Care Act, a provision that which enables the government to share in the risks and gains of the marketplace. If the cost of insuring people is lower than expected, insurers pay into a pool, and if it’s higher than expected, they can draw from that pool. 

The latter would appeal to conservatives who say the provision represents a potential taxpayer bailout of insurance companies and who believe they must use every opportunity to chip away at Obamacare. On the other hand, the GOP tried to get the law defunded last fall, which led to the 16-day government shutdown in October and sinking poll numbers for the party.

The GOP sees the Keystone XL as a policy argument they can win on the merits, and may not tie it to the debt ceiling as a result. They gained momentum last week from a State Department report that concluded the pipeline would not significantly worsen carbon pollution; environmentalists tend to disagree with those conclusions. The president will be under pressure from both Republicans and some Democrats whose states would benefit from the pipeline when he makes a decision about whether or not to approve it.

Boehner said the report showed that “there is no reason, scientific or otherwise, for delaying” the pipeline. “Mr. President, it’s time to act,” he said.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for