As House Republicans gather at a private retreat in Williamsburg, Va., to plot a course to address the next string of fiscal deadlines facing Congress this spring, Rep. Paul Ryan, the former Republican nominee for vice president, told reporters today that conservatives could agree to a short-term increase to the debt limit.
"We're discussing the possible virtue of a short-term debt limit extension so that we have a better chance of getting the Senate and the White House involved in discussions in March," Ryan, R-Wis., revealed during an off-camera discussion with reporters tracking the retreat. "What we want to achieve at the end of the day is a two-way discussion between Democrats and Republicans and, out of that, hopefully, some progress being made on getting this deficit and debt under control - because we really do believe that our obligation is to help prevent a debt crisis from hitting this country."
Ryan declined to detail the terms of a possible short-term extension, but said that given "the realities of divided government" challenging lawmakers, he hopes Republicans "achieve consensus on a plan to proceed so that we can make progress on controlling spending and deficits and debt.
"Our goal is to make sure that our members understand all of the deadlines that are coming, all the consequences of those deadlines that are coming, in order so that we can make a better-informed decision about how to move and how to proceed," said Ryan, who was easily reelected to another term in the House.
While the Treasury Department warns that Congress will have to address the statutory debt limit in mid-February, Congress also faces a deadline of automatic spending cuts across the board on March 1, and an expiring continuing resolution on March 27. Finally, Ryan has a budget blueprint due April 15.
"We'll put out a budget that shows exactly how we think we should fix the debt crisis, grow the economy, save Medicare, fix health care - you know, reform the tax code," he said.
"It would be wrong if we walk out of this spring with no achievement on debt reduction whatsoever because that will hurt the country, that will hurt the economy," Ryan said. "We have to have a serious plan for tackling these things, and what we want to do is get the Senate and the White House involved in this process, involved in a discussion, so that out of that comes progress on these issues."
Ryan predicted that the "worst thing" that could happen to the economy is "for this Congress and this administration to do nothing to get our debt and deficits under control."
"We know we have a debt crisis coming. This is not an 'if' question; it's a 'when' question," Ryan said. "We see our obligation in the majority in the House, but in the minority of power in Washington, as making progress on this issue to prevent our constituents, the country, from having a debt crisis, which will hurt our economy, will hurt job creation."
Given the recent consternation and division within the House Republican Conference, Ryan underscored the importance of keeping his Republican colleagues united on a plan forward to address the next slate of challenges facing lawmakers.
"What matters most is people have a very clear view of what's coming so that there are no surprises, and that means setting expectations accordingly so that we can proceed in a unified basis," Ryan said. "We want every member to understand all of the issues and all of the consequences so that we come together with consensus on a plan to move forward and proceed."
Ryan said House Republicans "are serious about doing tax reform this year" irrespective of how the next fiscal negotiations proceed, because conservatives believe "it's the best way" to create jobs and grow the economy.
"We want to get rid of crony capitalism, much of which occurs in the tax code. We want to have lower tax rates and broader tax base," he said. "We see tax reform as an important step towards growing the economy and, therefore, reducing debt. Whether that's connected to this or not, I just don't know whether that's going to be the case or not, but we are serious about it one way or the other."