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Boehner: Link Military Benefits to Debt Limit

Washington — House Speaker John Boehner scrambled on Wednesday to sell a new debt-ceiling solution to his Republican colleagues, encouraging them to demand a restoration of recently cut military benefits in exchange for a one-year extension of the federal government’s borrowing authority.

Though Boehner, R-Ohio, did not formally endorse the idea as his own, he did ask his lieutenants to test it among rank-and-file Republicans.

Boehner’s inner circle said he is casting about to find a solution that can pass the House without rupturing the fractious Republican conference, in which disagreement over past debt-limit strategies has caused considerable turmoil. He also wants to avoid a dramatic partisan fight with the White House, which has long resisted GOP attempts to extract major concessions on the debt ceiling.

“Right now, Jesus himself couldn’t be the speaker and get 218 Republicans behind something, so I think Speaker Boehner is trying his best to come up with a plan that can get close to that,” said Rep. Patrick Tiberi, R-Ohio, a longtime Boehner ally. “Whatever we move, there will be critics everywhere, but at the end of the day we still have to govern.”

This week, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the government will run short of cash to pay its bills by the end of the month unless Congress grants additional credit authority.

“Unlike other recent periods when we have had to use extraordinary measures to continue financing the government, this time these measures will give us only a brief span of time,” Lew said Monday in a speech at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Given these realities, it is imperative that Congress move right away to increase our borrowing authority.”

Outside the House chamber Wednesday night, the plan was gaining momentum, with dozens of GOP members saying they could back it. The benefits for retired military personnel were reduced in last year’s bipartisan budget agreement, which cut $6 billion in payments to veterans over the next 10 years.

“I’d support it in a heartbeat,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo. “We need to figure this thing out, and that’s a way to do it.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said, “A lot of people are supportive right now, and this idea could be a vehicle that wins backing from a lot of Republicans.”

The new idea emerged after support for two earlier proposals fizzled. One would have involved another attempt to repeal parts of President Barack Obama’s signature health-care law, while the other would have tried to force Obama’s hand on approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

According to two people present, Boehner argued that the military-benefits maneuver could force some Democrats to join Republicans and also win support from conservatives, who have voiced frustration with the reductions in payouts for retired military personnel.

Boehner’s approach - moving toward a possible tweak to federal pension funding - signals a departure from past debt-ceiling standoffs, in which Republicans have frequently demanded sweeping conservative measures in exchange for an extension. It also underscores Boehner’s desire to avoid a partisan standoff with the White House ahead of the midterm elections.

In recent years, debt-ceiling debates have been a chance for House Republicans to try to leverage concessions from the White House and Senate Democrats in the ongoing battle of spending and deficit control. But after October’s government shutdown, many in the House say they have little appetite for another standoff. Some members say they just want to get it behind them. “Look — we owe the money and we’ve got to do something,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a longtime Boehner supporter. “It’s time to end the drama and get it over with.”

Others say that, in the end, Republicans will have to pass a “clean” bill, one with no strings attached, so they should just move on it now.