House GOP floats new debt-ceiling deal, with strings attached

House Republicans said they would agree to raise the debt ceiling, but only for three months and only if Senate Democrats promise to pass a budget (which they haven't done for three years).

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, shown here in a joint session of Congress earlier this month, has given the new GOP debt-ceiling plan a cool reception.

With the federal government only weeks away from hitting its borrowing limit, House Republicans have named their price for lifting the nation’s debt limit for three months: legislation requiring lawmakers to pass their annual budgets or go without pay.

The proposal arises from Republican frustrations at Senate Democrats' refusal to pass a budget in any of the past three years. Republicans see this as an irresponsible ploy to shield vulnerable Democrats from taking tough votes on federal spending. 

But the GOP plan also suggests that many Republicans are increasingly uneasy with the prospect of reliving 2011’s debt-ceiling debacle Pushing the debt ceiling off for several months allows the House GOP to walk back from the brink of pushing the country into a catastrophic default while keeping the issue of debt and deficits alive in Washington for the foreseeable future.

President “Obama doesn’t want to spend the second term on the budget, [and] these kind of moves make him spend the entire time on the budget,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey.

The move appeared to garner the support of the Republican Study Committee – the most conservative GOP caucus and the caucus most openly critical of GOP leadership.

“This is a necessary first step as we work to halt the decline of America and puts the focus where it belongs: on the Senate who has failed to do their jobs to pass a budget for more than three years,” said a joint statement from Rep. Steve Scalise (R) of Louisiana, the current chairman of the RSC, and three former chairmen.

House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia said the bill will come up for a vote when Congress returns early next week after Mr. Obama’s inauguration.

Among House Republicans, frustrations with Senate Democrats run deep.

“The House has done its job and passed budgets, and we will again this year,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) of Washington, the GOP’s fourth-ranking member in the House, in a statement. “But the United States Senate is approaching four years without having passed a budget, and that must end because the Democratic majority in Washington is short-changing the American people.”

With their proposal, House Republicans are attempting to link the debt-ceiling fight to an idea with bipartisan appeal. The centrist political advocacy group No Labels and Rep. Jim Cooper (D) of Tennessee have pushed for “no budget, no pay” schemes. Existing “no budget, no pay” legislation has several dozen House sponsors of both parties (though the preponderance are Republican) and a dozen supporters in the Senate (all but one from the GOP).

But linking lawmakers’ pay to passing a budget does have issues, both legislative and philosophical.

First, the “no budget, no pay” scheme has one very prominent Senate detractor: majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, who has called the legislation “stupid.” On Friday, Senator Reid’s office didn't endorse the GOP's offer, asking instead for a "clean" – or attachment-free – debt-ceiling increase, but neither did it shoot down the idea entirely.

“It is reassuring to see Republicans beginning to back off their threat to hold our economy hostage,” said Adam Jentleson, a Reid spokesman, in a statement. “If the House can pass a clean debt ceiling increase to avoid default and allow the United States to meet its existing obligations, we will be happy to consider it.”

Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney, hit a similar note, saying "Congress must pay its bills and pass a clean debt limit increase without further delay."

"No budget, no pay" legislation also has to jibe with the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, which restricts lawmakers from altering their own pay until after the next election. As No Labels wrote last year about the measure: “If Congress doesn’t act in 2012, a No Budget, No Pay law could not take effect until 2015 at the earliest.”

And finally, the proposal is no guarantee of good congressional behavior. Individual lawmakers have little control of the budget, and richer members of Congress (and powerful interest groups) could use the legislation as leverage over their less-well-off peers, as Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in March.

But mostly, it would play to Americans’ lowest assumptions about what drives members of Congress.

“It is pandering of the worst sort, playing to voters’ worst instincts about Congress,” Mr. Ornstein wrote. “Given the fact that campaigns for Congress are now focused on trashing the character and integrity of the candidates, with the mud level rising after Citizens United, and given the punishing lives members of Congress lead, it is a wonder now that we get any serious, problem-solving individuals to take on the task.”

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