So now Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is enlisting allies to explore other options, like undoing a cut to future military benefits in the recently passed budget deal or fixing the flawed Medicare physician payment formula (commonly known as the doc fix).
And even those options are struggling. Republican leaders know this is an unwise battle to pick but they don't yet want to put a clean debt limit on the House floor and let it pass with mostly Democratic votes. They still feel tea party pressure to attach some fiscal reforms to a debt limit hike, even though they were forced to surrender last October (when the issue most recently came up) without winning any concessions. At the same time, they're effectively admitting they'll do what's necessary to avert default.
"We're still looking for the pieces to this puzzle but we do not want to default on our debt and we're not going to default on our debt," Boehner told reporters on Thursday. "No decisions have been made. We're continuing to talk to our members."
Boehner's ally, Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH), joked that not even Jesus could unite 218 members of the rambunctious GOP caucus behind a debt limit bill (they actually need 217 votes to pass a bill because there are a few vacancies). It has become a toxic vote that many conservatives simply don't want to cast.
As Boehner admitted, "We need Democrat support in order to pass it."
But Democratic leaders aren't letting Boehner off the hook, signaling they'll reject any policy add-ons to the debt limit -- including his idea to tie it to a cost-of-living increase in military benefits.
"No negotiating means no negotiation," said a House Democratic leadership aide.
The U.S. will exhaust its borrowing authority in late February, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said. The White House says raising it cleanly is non-negotiable.
This article has been updated for clarity.