"Dollar for dollar is difficult," Price said. "The discretionary spending itself is $1 trillion a year, and if you're running a $1 trillion deficit annually, it's tough to find the savings solely in discretionary spending to match the increase in debt-limit."
Hence the emphasis on the mandatory side of the ledger, where Republicans see a bounty of bloated programs -- Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. While slashing mandatory spending wouldn't immediately shrink the deficit, conservatives argue it would put the U.S. on a path to a balanced budget, and that's their stated goal.
"Could you squeeze another penny or two from discretionary? Perhaps you could," said Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Georgia, who heads the RSC's budget and spending task force. "But certainly you can't get the big dollars you need for the big deal out of discretionary."
More Than Just Optics?
Republicans are eager to look like they are giving the White House plenty of options, convinced that it is in their interest to appear engaged and flexible at the negotiating table. But this menu, they insist, it more than a political plan to win the optics war.
Having gone through the bruising 2011 debt-ceiling fight -- "a turbulent time," Scalise recalled, putting it mildly -- Republicans say they want to avoid another round of all-or-nothing dialogue. And while many members are interested in striking a "grand bargain," most see that outcome as increasingly unlikely.
"Past experience being what it is, we're preparing for a president that does not want a big deal," Woodall said. "Maybe he wants a medium-sized deal; there are some options there. Maybe he wants a really small deal -- he just wants to push the ceiling back until the end of the year. Whatever the issue, we're not talking at all about how to obstruct those negotiations. We're talking about how to be a part of those negotiations."
Republicans say the beauty of their menu is flexibility. "If what makes it easier to find the deal is to go in and pick and choose among a dozen different programs and just grab a little bit from all 12 -- instead of a lot from one them -- then that works just fine," Woodall said.
According to a senior House leadership aide, this is known as the "kitchen sink" approach -- putting every option and potential combination on the bargaining table, and daring the other side to walk away. Even tax reform -- something that does not drastically reduce spending, but is a conservative policy goal -- is said to be on the medium-term section of the GOP menu.
Another New Year's Eve Showdown
At this point, it's unclear when Treasury will hit its debt ceiling - a date lawmakers refer to as "X-date."
After the January extension, the deadline for raising the debt limit has steadily moved back, thanks to lower spending levels and higher tax revenues. And it could continue to do so. Lawmakers are already looking to mid-October and November, and one member even said he wouldn't be surprised if the negotiations wound up butting up against December's holiday recess, again.
No matter the actual date, Republicans expect Obama to wait until the last minute to negotiate.