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Conservative lawmakers split on debt limit increase

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) leaves after his news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington January 16, 2014. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) leaves after his news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington January 16, 2014. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Conservative Republicans differed on Wednesday over their party's approach to raising the U.S. debt ceiling, underscoring the challenges faced by House Speaker John Boehner as Congress considers the Obama administration's request for an increase in the federal government's borrowing authority.

At a question-and-answer session with reporters, Representative Joe Barton said Republicans should push for deficit reduction in exchange for a debt-limit increase.

Barton, a Texas Republican who has been in Congress since 1985, said his party should push for curbs in spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security.

"A clean debt ceiling, I think, is capitulation," Barton said at "Conversation with Conservatives," a monthly forum moderated by the Heritage Foundation.

But Representative Raul Labrador, a Tea Party favorite from Idaho, said at the same session that the GOP might be better off just allowing Democrats to pass the increase.

He said Republicans should not repeat a pattern in which they make demands, only to back down later.

Last year, the federal government shut down for 16 days amid a political battle over Republican calls for changes to Obama's signature health care program, the Affordable Care Act. When the government reopened, the law, often called Obamacare, was left untouched.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has warned Congress that it must act by the end of February to raise U.S. borrowing authority or risk an historic debt default.

Barton said that if a proposal for a "clean" debt ceiling increase were to be brought to the floor of the House of Representatives, it might attract only 50 or 60 Republicans votes in the 435-member House.

But Labrador countered that Republicans, who have the majority in the House but not the Senate, should not insist on conditions unless they are willing to fight for them.

"I think that this year, the speaker should just allow the Democrats to pass a clean debt ceiling. The Democrats can own it," Labrador said.

"They (Democrats) can explain to the American people why they want to continue to increase the debt without any major reform ... I don't want us to just claim we are fighting for something and then capitulate at the end," Labrador said.

Boehner said on Tuesday that Republican leaders were talking to House members about which deficit-reduction measures should be linked to the debt hike legislation.

Ideas have ranged from demanding Obama administration approval of the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to altering provisions of Obamacare known as "risk corridors," that would shield insurance companies against losses.

But a House Republican aide said on Wednesday that those two approaches have been dropped because there is not enough support for either tactic in the party's caucus.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; editing by Caren Bohan, G Crosse)

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