Is House GOP Backing Down In Debt Limit Fight?

House Republicans are taming members’ expectations ahead of the debt limit showdown, signaling that they may not be able to extract significant concessions from Democrats.

A Friday memo to GOP members by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) says “the House will act to prevent a default on our obligations before” the mid-October deadline the Obama administration has established. “House Republicans,” he says, “will demand fiscal reforms and pro-growth policies which put us on a path to balance in ten years in exchange for another increase in the debt limit.”

The language is vague — intentionally so, in order to maintain wiggle room for Republicans to avert a disastrous debt default. President Barack Obama has vowed not to pay a ransom to ensure the U.S. can meet its obligations.

If and when they do cave, Republicans will be hard-pressed to show their base they got something in return for raising the debt ceiling. In January, they got Senate Democrats to agree to pass a non-binding budget resolution. This time around, the possibilities for symbolic concessions range from a doomed Senate vote to delay or defund Obamacare or instructions to initiate the process of tax reform.

There are a number of demands rank-and-file Republicans have urged leaders to make which could genuinely complicate the battle, such as dollar-for-dollar spending cuts or unwinding Obamacare. Cantor’s memo mentioned neither. GOP members have also called on leadership not to bring up any debt limit bill that lacks the support of half the conference. Boehner hasn’t committed to this and Cantor didn’t mention it in his memo.

There are several reasons Republicans will have a hard time extracting concessions. Back in January, when Obama held firm and refused to negotiate on the debt limit, Republicans folded and agreed to suspend the debt ceiling without substantial concessions but rather symbolic ones. And due to deep divisions within the conference, House Republicans will face enormous challenges in rounding up 218 votes to pass any conceivable debt limit hike.

The party’s top priority is to cut safety-net programs like Social Security and Medicare. But there’s no internal consensus on what to cut. And Republicans, whose constituents are disproportionately older, have generally refused to vote on entitlement cuts without bipartisan cover from Democrats. In this case Democrats are highly unlikely to give it to them, which complicates their task of passing a debt limit bill.

The Cantor memo makes it all but official that Republicans won’t seek to defund Obamacare in the fiscal battles. The strategy, pushed by conservative activists, to withhold support for keeping the government running after Sept. 30 unless Democrats agree to defund Obamacare. Instead it vows to “hold a series of strategic votes throughout the fall to dismantle, defund, and delay Obamacare.” The memo says Republicans “will continue to pursue the strategy of systematically derailing this train wreck and replacing it with a patient-centered system.”

The GOP’s big stand in the fiscal battles will be to force Obama to accept the lower spending levels ordered by sequestration — automatic spending cuts enacted in 2011 — in a measure to keep the government funded. Here Republicans will refuse to cede and the White House has not suggested it’ll veto a bill that maintains sequester spending levels, although Obama wants to cut a deal to replace the sequester.

“In signing a CR at sequester levels,” Cantor writes, “the President would be endorsing a level of spending that wipes away all the increases he and Congressional Democrats made while they were in charge and returns us to a pre-2008 level of discretionary spending.”

Then on immigration, the prognosis is grim. Cantor’s memo says the House “may begin considering” bills this fall that have passed out of committee. But he adds a crucial caveat: legislation securing the border must pass before the House considers other immigration reforms, like a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. “Before we consider any other reforms,” Cantor writes, “it is important that we pass legislation securing our borders and providing enforcement mechanisms to our law enforcement officials.”

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