CAMBRIDGE, Md. -- House Republicans on Friday began flirting more seriously with the idea of spurring another showdown over the nation's debt limit when it comes time to raise it by the end of February.
Talking strategy among themselves at their annual retreat roughly an hour and a half outside of Washington, D.C., lawmakers discussed what type of concessions they would try to extract in exchange for agreeing to lift the Treasury Department's borrowing capacity. The most popular idea appeared to be tying a one-year debt limit hike to a repeal of the Affordable Care Act's so-called risk corridors reinsurance fund, according to a source in the room. Another option discussed was demanding President Barack Obama approve the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, Politico reported.
Risk corridors are insurance for the insurance companies. If they end up with a pool that is older and sicker than they predicted, the federal government helps them out financially so they don't raise premiums the next year. If they get a younger and healthier pool than imagined, they give some of the money they saved back to the government.
A House GOP leadership aide told The Huffington Post that while lawmakers had not yet decided on a strategy, targeting the risk corridors provision of Obamacare was "definitely a popular option."
There was "no consensus yet, but a good, positive discussion on options," the aide said.
But even the specter of a debt limit confrontation had Democrats scoffing. One top Democratic Senate aide said that there was no chance that the party would agree to a bill that touched the Affordable Care Act. Senate Democrats would let the House pass its version before stripping out the provision and "sending it back," the aide added. Another aide said the party felt no political pressure to negotiate with House Republicans, noting that GOP leadership passed two virtually clean debt ceiling hikes this past year despite insisting that such bills could never clear their chamber.
"Bad habits are tough to break," the aide said of Friday's news that the risk corridors would be the next GOP debt limit target.
Currently, the debt ceiling is set to be hit on Feb. 7, but the Treasury Department has said that it can use extraordinary measures to push the ultimate deadline to sometime in late February. Should Republicans take negotiations to that point, they would risk the type of political backlash they faced when they allowed the government to shut down in October.
For that reason alone, there has been wariness within the ranks to draw bold lines in the sand. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said he believed there would be enough Republican support in the Senate to pass a clean debt ceiling bill. And even in his public statements, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hinted that House Republicans are asking for concessions as an opening, not a final, offer.
"We know what the obstacles are that we face, but listen, we believe that defaulting on our debt is the wrong thing," Boehner said at a press conference Thursday. "We don't want to do that."
One GOP aide at the retreat made the case that, unlike during past standoffs, Boehner had some leeway to move toward the president, arguing that the base wouldn't erupt in anger if a clean debt ceiling hike was passed. Republicans could campaign on Obama's refusal to negotiate, the aide argued, and blame Democrats for racking up the national debt.
And indeed House rank-and-file members on Friday sounded wary of pushing too hard on a fight they've already lost twice. During another press event later that day, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) got into a testy exchange with a reporter who pushed him to say whether he'd vote for a clean debt limit hike. Kinzinger initially responded by stating the need to address the growing debt, but the reporter insisted he answer "yes or no" on a clean bill.
"I can't take a position at this point," Kinzinger finally said.
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who heads the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters that the path forward had yet to be decided. But he conceded there was a "political reality" that Obama wasn't going to see the issue from the GOP's perspective.
He, too, demurred when asked if Republicans would eventually be faced with no option but to pass a clean bill. "The debt's going up and we have a greater obligation than simply to just pass it along," Camp said.
Even Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), one of the conference's more conservative members, declined to outline any specific concessions he would like to see in exchange for raising the nation's borrowing cap.
He only offered that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) should take up the House-passed Full Faith and Credit Act, a bill that would direct the Treasury secretary to prioritize payments to Social Security and U.S. bondholders in the event of a debt ceiling breach. That legislation stands zero chance with Democrats, who've criticized it for prioritizing foreign investors over veterans, military benefits and Medicare.