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House Republicans are divided over whether to pursue a debt-ceiling vote before or after acting on the Senate's revised continuing resolution, a tactical dilemma that has lawmakers flying blind into a critical weekend of work that will either avert -- or usher in -- a government shutdown.
Several hours after a House GOP meeting in which Speaker John Boehner detailed his debt-ceiling proposal -- which features a one-year delay of Obamacare implementation -- conservative members gathered in the same meeting space, in the Capitol basement, for the weekly meeting of the Republican Study Committee. Lawmakers emerging from that meeting described the dialogue as tense, with several members protesting the idea of proceeding with a vote on Boehner's debt-ceiling package before knowing what comes next in the CR negotiations.
According to sources in the room, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho was among the members baffled at the idea of expediting a debt-ceiling vote. At one point Labrador singled out Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who was in attendance, and asked point-blank: "Why the heck would we vote on the debt-ceiling before the Senate sends us their CR?"
Cantor replied: "No decisions have been made."
This exchange highlights the growing angst among Republicans as the campaign to diminish Obamacare reaches its most critical stage. Some conservatives are vehemently opposed to the idea of pushing any debt-ceiling deal before they first execute a return volley on the CR. Since the House initially passed a 'defund Obamacare' measure, they argue, why should it suddenly pass a 'delay Obamacare' provision before ever receiving a response to its opening tender?
"It's not how you negotiate," said Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas.
Cantor wasn't attempting to mollify his right flank, however; sources say the leadership team truly has not decided on how to proceed. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy's team began tallying debt-ceiling votes soon after Thursday's meeting, but that effort was complicated by some members refusing to commit on the debt-ceiling plan until informed of the precise sequence of votes. Of course, that sequence can't be decided until leadership knows where members stand -- which is what McCarthy's team is now struggling to determine.
Further complicating these tactical deliberations is swelling uncertainty over when, exactly, the Senate will send the House its revised CR. Republicans in the House expressed an array of expectations on Thursday -- some whispered about Friday morning, others predicted Sunday night -- but this swirling speculation only underscored the visceral apprehension heading into the weekend.
"We're hearing a hundred different things," Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said of the Senate's CR timeframe.
Regardless of timing, many members voiced frustration in the RSC meeting over the debt-ceiling proposal itself. Specifically, conservatives were baffled that Boehner spelled out the provisions of the bill without presenting a "score" that details a precise sum of spending cuts and savings. Several lawmakers, in fact, said they would not vote for the proposal -- regardless of timing -- until they see the bill scored.
(The legislation, which has yet to be formally introduced, measured economic growth but did not tabulate exact savings.)
Adding to this mounting malaise amid an action-packed day at the Capitol was an eyebrow-raising sentiment, expressed by some GOP aides, that the latest setback for Obamacare -- a reported delay in online enrollment for certain health care exchanges -- could actually incentivize a brief shutdown in the eyes of some members.
If Tuesday arrives without a budget deal, some conservatives speculate, media coverage of the government shutdown will coincide with a "disastrous" rollout of the Obamacare exchanges. At that point, these members believe, their campaign to defeat Obamacare would suddenly be justified in the eyes of the public and the flaws of the health care law would be exposed -- even at the expense of a brief, choreographed shutdown.
Of course, the vast majority of Republicans are determined to avoid a shutdown. But a small faction of conservatives have long downplayed the potential damage to the GOP brand.
"The government shuts down every weekend. They shut down every holiday," Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas told National Journal recently. "So a couple of days of shutdown..."