Updated Friday, January 18, 2013 at 01:03 PM
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Gathered for a retreat to map out how to manage coming confrontations with President Obama and congressional Democrats, often combative House Republicans seemed Thursday to be looking for a quick way out of one imminent fight.
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republicans’ former vice-presidential nominee and an influential party voice on fiscal policy, said Thursday that Republicans were considering allowing a short-term extension of the federal debt limit of a month or so to foster more discussion about spending cuts.
“We’re discussing the possible virtue of a short-term debt-limit extension, so that we have a better chance of getting the Senate and the White House involved in discussions in March,” said Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman.
Obama has said he will not negotiate over increasing the debt limit.
If House Republicans, who lost seats in November and have low approval ratings, take a hard line, they could end up getting most of the blame for any government default and subsequent economic turmoil.
Though a short-term extension might be seen as a momentary surrender, it could tie the debt topic into discussions about across-the-board military- and domestic-spending cuts set to hit March 1 and the expiration March 27 of a stopgap law funding the government. Republicans say the timing could give them more room to fight for cuts.
The two days of party meetings were being used by leaders to try to remind conservative lawmakers itching to do battle with Obama that Democrats increased their numbers in Congress and held on to the presidency in November, and so Republicans might want to tread more carefully.
After a morning session that was closed to the news media, Ryan said he had warned members they had to “recognize the realities of the divided government that we have” and urged them to unite behind leadership on the coming fiscal debates.
“Our goal is to make sure our members understand all the deadlines that are coming,” he said.
The struggles of House Republicans have been shown most recently in the emergence of an influential but unofficial group that could be called the Vote No/Hope Yes Caucus.
These are the small but significant number of Republican representatives who, on the recent legislation to head off the broad tax increases and spending cuts mandated by the so-called fiscal cliff, voted no while privately hoping — and at times even lobbying — in favor of the bill’s passage, given the potential harmful economic consequences otherwise.
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, part of the Republican whip team responsible for marshaling support for legislation, said the current makeup of House Republicans could be divided roughly into a third who voted in favor of the bill because they wanted it to pass, a third who voted against the bill because they wanted it to fail and a third who voted against the bill but had their fingers crossed that it would pass and avert a fiscal and political calamity.
The Jan. 1 tax vote was a case study in gaming out a position on a difficult bill that many Republicans knew had to pass but was also one they preferred not to have their fingerprints on.
The Republican leadership seemed to reflect the ambivalence of its membership; House Speaker John Boehner voted in favor of the legislation, while Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, voted no.
Even Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the No. 3 Republican who is charged with securing votes for bills, voted against the deal. (Ultimately, 85 Republicans joined with 172 Democrats to pass it.)
The phenomenon occurred again this week as the vast majority of House Republicans abandoned a measure to provide relief for states hit by Hurricane Sandy, even though Republicans clearly wanted the measure to ultimately pass.
“Look, the reality is we control one-half of one-third of the federal government in a Democratic-run town,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner.
The Associated Press
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the GOP is “discussing the possible virtue of a short-term debt-limit extension” at its Williamsburg retreat.