WILLIAMSBURG, Va. » Gathered for a retreat to map out how to manage coming confrontations with President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, often combative House Republicans seemed on Thursday to be looking for a quick way out of one imminent fight.
Rep. Paul D. 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," Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, told reporters.
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, it could leave them 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 on 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 outside this colonial capital 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.
Debriefing reporters after a morning session, which was closed to the news media, Ryan said he had warned members that 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, all the consequences of those deadlines that are coming, in order so that we can make a better-informed decision about how to move, how to proceed," he said. "I think what matters most is people have a very clear view of what’s coming so that there are no surprises, and that means setting expectations accordingly, so that we can proceed in a unified basis."
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.
One lawmaker, Cole said, told him that while he did not want to vote in favor of the bill, he also did not want to amend it and send it back to the Senate where it might die and leave House Republicans blamed for tax increases.
"So I said, ‘What you’re really telling me is that you want it to pass, but you don’t want to vote for it,"’ recalled Cole, who voted yes.
The Vote No/Hope Yes group is perhaps the purest embodiment of the uneasy relationship between politics and pragmatism in the nation’s capital and a group whose very existence must be understood and dealt with as the Republican Party grapples with its futurein the wake of the bruising 2012 elections.
Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and once the top spokesman for the former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert, a Republican, described the phenomenon thus: "These are people who are political realists, they’re political pragmatists who want to see progress made in Washington, but are politically constrained from making compromises because they will be challenged in the primary."
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 itself seemed to reflect the ambivalence of their membership; House Speaker John A. Boehnervoted in favor of the legislation, while Rep. Eric Cantorof 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, many citing spending concerns, abandoned a measure to provide relief for states hit by Hurricane Sandy, even though Republicans clearly wanted the measure to ultimately pass.
At the two-day retreat, aides said, Republican leaders are expected to emphasize that a united conference going forward will offer House Republicans the strongest negotiating stance on crucial coming issues like the debt ceiling limit and spending cuts. (A dinner Wednesday night was aptly titled, "Using Adversity to Our Advantage by Working Together.")
Conservative rank-and-file members plan to express their frustration at feeling largely cut out of the deal-making process, and to request more chances to offer input.
"I think there will be a lot of looking back on the fiscal cliff vote," Cole said. "I think there will be some discussion on the divided leadership, saying, ‘You guys need to sort this out, you need to be willing to make a decision and lead."’
Still, he added: "I can make a pretty good case that our problem is less one of leadership than of followership. I’d be happy to just have some people who would follow decently."
Part of the problem House Republicans are struggling with is philosophical: What does it mean to hold the majority in the House, but still be the minority in a town currently under Democratic control? What is ideal, what is achievable, and where does that fine line of compromise lie?
And what are the limits of their own conference? (Another panel, "What is the Role of the Republican Majority in the 113th Conference?" seemed to pose that question directly.)
"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.