From left to right, Republican Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Nancy Mace of South Carolina and Don Bacon of Nebraska.
CNN  — 

House Republicans from swing districts are flatly rejecting the White House’s position that there be no negotiations with Congress over raising the national debt ceiling, insisting that they won’t bend to the Democrats’ take-it-or-leave-it approach to avoid the first-ever debt default with no conditions attached.

The Republicans, many of whom hail from districts that President Joe Biden won or narrowly lost and are seen as the most likely to break ranks with their party’s leadership, said they are not willing to back a “clean” debt ceiling increase, insisting there must be some fiscal agreement first. That view is in line with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who is calling for negotiations with the White House before a possible default occurs later this year.

But the White House and Senate Democratic leaders, wary of the ferocious fiscal fights with the House GOP that dogged then-President Barack Obama, see little upside in giving in to any of the GOP demands to impose spending cuts on domestic programs, believing instead that McCarthy and Republicans will cave facing the prospect of a looming default and with no viable legislative alternative.

The White House is badly miscalculating, Republicans say.

“I don’t think that a clean debt ceiling is in order, and I certainly don’t think that a default is in order,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a moderate whose Pennsylvania district Biden carried, told CNN, indicating he planned to engage in bipartisan talks next week over a compromise proposal when lawmakers return to Washington.

The early back-and-forth underscores how Washington is heading into a period of deep uncertainty with global ramifications – with a newly empowered House GOP majority eager to use its leverage in the debt limit fight to enact priorities that otherwise would be ignored by the Democrats running the Senate and the White House. Some congressional sources in both parties believe that McCarthy may ultimately be jammed by the Senate and forced to vote on a bipartisan compromise crafted in that chamber, though that scenario would take weeks if not months to play out.

To work around McCarthy, Democrats would need to win over some potential GOP swing votes to sign on to a “discharge petition,” which could force a House floor vote if six Republicans signed on to the effort with the 212 Democrats currently in the chamber.

Republicans insist there’s little chance of that tactic succeeding at the moment – especially if it’s to force a vote on a clean debt ceiling increase with no other conditions or concessions.

“I’m not in favor of Biden’s no-negotiating strategy, and I’m not inclined to help,” said Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican whose Nebraska district Biden carried, indicating Republicans campaigned against government spending and inflation. “The GOP can’t demand the moon, and Biden can’t refuse to negotiate. There needs to be give-and-take on both sides.”

Bacon said there needs to be “good faith” talks with the White House and some “commitment for fiscal restraint” before he would even consider signing onto a discharge petition.

Republican Rep. Mike Lawler, a New York freshman who also hails from a Biden district, said that Democrats aren’t going to be able to work around McCarthy and the House GOP majority.

“They need to come to a realization pretty quickly they are no longer in a one-party controlled government, and it requires negotiation,” Lawler told CNN, adding that it’s “very rational and reasonable” for two parties to meet in the middle. “It’s not Republicans acquiescing to Democrats.”

But the White House has drawn a line, saying the debt ceiling must be raised “without conditions.”

“There will not be any negotiations over the debt ceiling – we will not do that, it is their constitutional duty,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Wednesday.

Many on Capitol Hill view the back-and-forth as just early posturing before the two sides begin to engage in serious negotiations in the spring since lawmakers have a few months before the possibility of default. While the United States on Thursday hit the $31.38 trillion debt ceiling set by Congress, the Treasury Department said in a letter that same day that it plans to employ “extraordinary measures” to avoid a default, something it warns could happen by June 5 if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling – a potential calamity that could ripple through the world’s economy.

For McCarthy, the challenge is that several of his hardline members refuse to raise the national debt ceiling no matter what concessions they could win in a negotiation – a position voiced by Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs and others such as Rep. Tim Burchett, a Tennessee Republican. With any four GOP defections enough to scuttle party-line bills, McCarthy’s dilemma means he very well could need Democratic support to raise the debt limit no matter what else is attached to it.

“I’m a no, no matter what,” Burchett told CNN recently of raising the debt ceiling.

To win the speakership this month on the 15th ballot, McCarthy cut a deal with some of his members on the hard-right, saying the House Republicans “will not agree” to a debt limit increase without a “budget agreement or commensurate fiscal reforms,” according to a slide presented to the GOP Conference and obtained by CNN.

McCarthy has not been clear about what precisely he wants in return to raise the debt limit. But he has made clear he won’t accept a clean increase and that talks with the White House should begin immediately to avoid putting the country on the edge of a cliff.

“We’re six months away,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “Why wouldn’t we sit down now and change this behavior, that we would put ourselves on a more fiscally strong position?”

Bipartisan talks begin as Senate could play key role

For McCarthy, the pressure could be even more intense since he also agreed to a concession to allow for a single member to call for a vote seeking his ouster from his position atop the House. One of his leading GOP critics, Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, would not say if he would seek to boot McCarthy over his handling of the debt ceiling.

“Well, it’s my position, has always been, that I will not vote for a debt ceiling increase that does not include cuts to spending, that puts us on a path to fiscal responsibility,” Good said, declining to further comment.

Democrats say that the GOP is staking out an untenable position, given that the debt limit needs to be increased to pay for bills already incurred and has been suspended or increased 61 times since 1978, including three times under then-President Donald Trump with little protest from congressional Republicans as debts and deficits rose.

Some Democrats who are more willing to cut deals with Republicans believe that there should be some discussion with the GOP about more fiscal restraint.

“Since defaulting on our debt would have unimaginable consequences, I believe we need a short-term, clean increase in the debt ceiling followed by a comprehensive, good-faith bipartisan review of all federal spending,” said Rep. Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat. “The current pattern is irresponsible and unsustainable.”

But that approach would require buy-in from Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has repeatedly pushed through debt ceiling increases by employing novel legislative maneuvers. Yet McConnell is likely to take a backseat approach – for now – as the new House GOP majority drives the debate over the issue, Republicans say. If the standoff drags on, however, senators are likely to try to find a bipartisan consensus that could be palatable to their parties’ leaders. If a Senate deal can be reached, sources say, then the House would be forced to vote on it if 218 members support it – something that wouldn’t require McCarthy’s support and would still be a very high hurdle to clear.

“No, I would not be concerned about a financial crisis,” McConnell told reporters in Louisville, Kentucky, on Thursday, without elaborating.

But getting to a deal would require bipartisan talks in both chambers – which the White House isn’t willing to entertain yet despite the support for direct negotiations from Republicans up and down the line.

“Our debt is not sustainable, and the White House insisting on more debt without budget reform isn’t serious,” said Rep. Nancy Mace, who hails from a South Carolina swing district, calling it an “inherent problem that we must get serious about.”

Added Rep. Dusty Johnson, a South Dakota Republican: “What in the world are we doing here if we’re not willing to have a serious conversation about spending? And that is going to mean some tension with the Senate, that is going to mean some tension with the other party, but I’m not concerned about the tension.”

Fitzpatrick, a leader of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, told CNN that he plans to engage next week in discussions within that group about a new plan to change the law over how the debt limit is set. Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat and co-leader of the bipartisan group, confirmed that the members are trying to work on a bipartisan deal.

“We’re working together because we have to find a bipartisan way forward,” Gottheimer said. “There’s simply too much at stake.”

Fitzpatrick said that they are looking at changing the law so the debt ceiling would not be set at a numerical limit, arguing that it would be more sustainable to establish a ratio preventing the debt from exceeding a certain percentage of the gross domestic product. If it exceeded the ratio, he said, then it would cause a triggering effect that would lead to budget constraints.

Fitzpatrick added such talks are at their very early stages and many of the details need to be ironed out before selling it to his colleagues and his party’s leadership. But the fact that the talks are ongoing, he said, demonstrates the need to cut a deal soon to avoid even the risk of a calamity.

“The absolute last option,” he said, would be to consider signing a discharge petition to force a vote on a clean debt ceiling increase. But Fitzpatrick said that’s not the path he plans to take.

“I hope everyone is responsible enough to not play a game of chicken,” Fitzpatrick said. “This is not a license to dig into an ideological corner. This a mandate to compromise.”

This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.