With an anxious eye toward the coming debt-ceiling negotiations, House Republicans are drafting what members call a "menu" of mandatory spending cuts to offer the White House in exchange for raising the country's borrowing limit.
This menu is more a matrix of politically fraught options for the Obama Administration to consider: Go small on cuts and get a short extension of the debt ceiling. Go big -- by agreeing to privatize Social Security, for example -- and get a deal that will raise the ceiling for the rest of Obama's term.
It's a strategy meant to show the GOP is ready to deal. But even conservatives admit that this gambit might do little to help them avoid blame should the negotiations reach a crisis stage.
President Obama says he will not negotiate the debt ceiling, warning that Congress should not threaten the credit-worthiness of the United States by bartering over the borrowing limit. And while House Republicans think he's bluffing, they fear Obama will stall until the last minute and then strike a bipartisan deal with the Senate, forcing the lower chamber to either accept an unfavorable agreement or take heat for a default on the nation's obligations and a downgrade on the U.S. credit rating.
There has been no communication between the White House and House GOP leadership about the coming debt-ceiling discussions, according to Republicans. But ever since Congress granted Obama a short-term extension in January -- a move that conservatives supported with the express purpose of strengthening their hand for the next round of negotiations -- Republicans have been engaged in intensive preparations for the coming debt-ceiling showdown.
House Speaker John Boehner is now working with several leading conservatives -- including Rep. Steve Scalise, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan -- to draft the options menu.
It is based on what's known as the Ryan budget, according to Rep. Tom Price, a far-right spending plan passed by the House that's been written off by Democrats as nothing more than a political document that decimates support for the poor and hurts the middle class. And it will outline what Obama will have to agree to for whatever length extension he wants.
For a long-term deal, one that gives Treasury borrowing authority for three and a half years, Obama would have to agree to premium support. The plan to privatize Medicare, perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Ryan budget, is the holy grail for conservatives who say major deficit-reduction can only be achieved by making this type of cut to mandatory spending. "If the president wants to go big, there's a big idea," Scalise said.
For a medium-sized increase in the debt-limit, Republicans want Obama to agree to cut spending in the SNAP food stamp program, block-grant Medicaid, or tinker with chained CPI.
For a smaller increase, there is talk of means-testing Social Security, for example, or ending certain agricultural subsidies.
While the menu includes plenty of variables, the underlying strategic goal is to reduce mandatory spending -- whatever the scope of the deal. Even at the smallest end of the spectrum -- another months-long extension of debt-limit -- there is talk of pushing back the eligibility age for Social Security by an equal number of months.
The debt ceiling caps the amount of debt the U.S. Treasury is authorized to sell, and that debt is used to pay off bills the United States has already incurred based on spending already approved by Congress. An administration official said the White House is willing to discuss deficit reduction, but not as part of a debate about the debt limit.