After House Speakerbriefed House Republicans on the outlines of a bill to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for spending cuts and policy changes, lawmakers emerged seeking more details, but they were optimistic about the prospect of writing a bill that could win the support of at least 218 members of their party.
"I think the conference is closer to yes and passing something than it is away from it at this point," said Rep. Drew Ferguson of Georgia, who helped with the party's vote-counting operation in the last Congress.
In an effort to push the White House into a negotiation, McCarthy on Mondaythat would lift the debt ceiling for a year, return the federal government spending to fiscal year 2022 levels, and limit spending increases over the next 10 years to 1% of annual growth.
The plan would aim to curb spending by pulling back any unspent funds allocated to fight COVID-19 and include some key GOP policy priorities like implementing additional work requirements for recipients of federal aid, boosting oil and gas production and reforming the permitting process.
Not all of the details are settled, including whether the bill would raise the debt ceiling by a specific dollar amount or suspend it until a certain date. Instead, McCarthy presented the conference with a range of options, members said. They're also still debating how far to go on undoing the Democrats' Inflation Reduction Act passed in the last Congress, whether to repeal certain energy tax credits and whether to revoke funding for the IRS to hire new agents.
Moderates and conservatives alike said they still needed more details, but the broad outlines of the plan seemed to attract widespread support within the conference. With just a four-vote majority and unified Democratic opposition to attaching any conditions to a debt limit increase, McCarthy can only afford to lose four of his members.
"There is some sentiment in the conference that we need a stronger package because things are going to be taken out in the Senate. You want to have as much leverage as possible," said Rep. Nancy Mace, a South Carolina Republican who is among the more moderate legislators in the conference. "I'm not sure we're there yet."
Mace wanted more details around work requirements, which she said would likely affect recipients of the SNAP food assistance program and Medicaid.
Another moderate, Republican Rep. Marc Molinaro of New York, was more circumspect.
"We're still taking a look at it," he said before hurrying away from reporters.
The work requirements also appealed to Rep. Matt Gaetz, a conservative lawmaker from Florida who refused to back McCarthy in the speaker race but instead finally relented and, clearing the way for the Californian to be elected to the position.
"There are a number of really critical details that we've still got to work out before making a final decision on it. But it's been a very productive discussion, a lot of good ideas," he told reporters after the meeting.
Another Republican who initially opposed McCarthy's election as speaker before eventually backing him, North Carolina Rep. Dan Bishop, said he's not convinced there are enough spending cuts in the bill yet, but praised the way the Republican leadership has handled the debate, which has included months of conducting listening sessions with GOP members on the issue.
"The conference as a whole is working intensively on this as anything I've ever seen. I think that's a great process," he said.
At least one Republican, Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee, said that he's currently a no on raising the debt ceiling but said he could "possibly" be swayed over policy elements he likes, such as work requirements.
The date by which the U.S. will exhaust its borrowing ability is a moving target as the Treasury Department waits to see how much revenue came in after tax day and utilizes what are known as "extraordinary measures" to continue paying the nation's bills as long as possible. Estimates of the so-called "X" date for hitting the debt limit range from early June to sometime over the summer.
Republicans are preparing to move quickly to unveil and pass a bill — potentially as early as next week — in order to pressure the Senate and White House into negotiations. President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have insisted a debt limit increase include no preconditions, which is a nonstarter in the Republican-controlled House. McCarthy and the president have not met to discuss the issue since February, and he and his allies are trying to cast Democrats as the party to blame for the looming crisis.
"They haven't done bupkis in the last four months to deal with the debt ceiling, so we'll have the first opening offer here," Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, a top McCarthy ally, said of the Senate. "We'll see if the president's willing to come to the table and negotiate like previous presidents have. And if he doesn't, then it's really a detriment to the country and the economy."
Asked if there are 218 votes for a Republican plan, he didn't miss a beat before responding.
"Yes," he said.
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