WASHINGTON — With the government shuttered and a deadline for raising the debt limit just two weeks off, anxious Republicans began steering the party away from a dead-end debate about the health care law and toward discussion of a broader deal to reduce the nation's debt.
In meetings with small groups of rank-and-file lawmakers, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has emphasized that he will not permit the country to default for the first time on its debt. Given that a bloc of hard-line conservatives is unlikely to vote to increase the limit under any circumstances, Boehner has told fellow Republicans that they must craft an agreement that can attract significant Democratic support.
"This needs to be a big bipartisan deal," Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a close Boehner ally, said as he emerged from a luncheon meeting in the speaker's office Thursday. "This is much more about the debt ceiling and a larger budget agreement than it is about Obamacare."
One lawmaker, speaking to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, said Thursday that Boehner has even suggested that he may be willing to risk the fury of conservatives by relying on a majority of Democratic votes — and less than a majority of Republicans — to pass a debt-ceiling increase.
A senior aide denied that Boehner has suggested such a strategy. Meanwhile, senior policy aides were at work on last-ditch alternatives that could win the support of a majority of Republicans, such as increasing the $16.7 trillion debt limit for a short period — mere days or weeks — to force Democrats to the negotiating table.
"Speaker Boehner has always said that the United States will not default on its debt, but if we're going to raise the debt limit, we need to deal with the drivers of our debt and deficits," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a written statement.
The shift in strategy among Republicans caused a brief sensation Thursday, as political analysts speculated that Boehner, who has long acknowledged the dangers of a default, may be ready to give up the fight. But Republicans pushed back hard against that idea. Although it may have been a mistake to shut down the government in a quest to dismantle President Barack Obama's health care law, they said, that does not mean they will roll over on the debt limit without concessions from Democrats.
"I don't think there's energy in the Republican caucus to have any kind of default on the debt limit," said Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., a member of the House leadership who represents the conservative class of 2010. But "we need a long-term plan to take future debt-ceiling increases off the table."
Increasing the debt limit for "a couple days, a week" would be a "horrible way" to jump-start talks, Lankford said. "We'd rather just get it resolved."
A very short-term increase in the debt limit could wreak havoc on the economy and financial markets by dragging the debate well beyond Oct. 17, when the Treasury will exhaust its borrowing authority.
"Playing games" with the debt limit by approving a short-term increase "would be a very, very serious mistake," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.