On Tuesday morning, the House Republican caucus debated between two possible debt ceiling hostages: demanding Keystone pipeline approval or pulling a rug out from under Obamacare. This is about November, not February.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warned Congress on Monday that the debt ceiling will need to be raised by the end of February so that the government has enough money to pay its bills. This debt ceiling (or debt limit) doesn't authorize the government to spend more money, just to borrow money it needs to cover spending that Congress already authorized.
Several years ago, Republicans realized that the issue was a political winner, increasingly seeing moments at which the ceiling needs to be raised as ones at which to demand concessions from President Obama, a strategy that culminated in the party's complete capitulation following the government shutdown last October. Obama has said repeatedly that he won't allow the debt ceiling to be used as a bargaining chip, and Republican leaders seem to understand that it's not going to happen. Last week, reports surfaced that House leaders knew a clean debt ceiling bill was inevitable; The Washington Post's intrepid Robert Costa reports that Speaker John Boehner gets that reality.
But: It's still a great political moment! Republicans can say "we oppose more debt and demanded issue X in exchange" to their constituents, and, while that's not exactly the case, politics are politics. Costa, who may know more about what Republicans are doing than some members of the caucus, says that the party is deciding between two hostages for the upcoming fight, who will be bound and gagged and paraded in front of cameras until … something happens? And then a debt ceiling increase is passed without any riders.
Option 1: Repeal of an Obamacare protection for insurers.
You knew there would be something about Obamacare. And this appears to be the leading option, since Republicans can tell their conservative constituents that they're still trying to slay the fabled Obamacare dragon.
What's proposed is ending the Affordable Care Act's "risk corridors," a technical term for a key provision of the bill. Over the first three years of the policy, insurers are protected from any substantial losses they might take on their new policies — a safeguard introduced to the bill specifically to ensure that any economic risk to insurers during the program's ramp-up would be mitigated. The Wall Street Journal has a good explanation of the system; if claims from new policies exceed a certain percentage, the government will help make up losses.
The issue isn't a new one in the Obamacare debate. New York's Jonathan Chait pointed out that Republicans like to call this the "Obamacare bailout," a particularly toxic combination of words for Republican voters. Repealing the risk corridors wouldn't necessarily have any effect, either. If coverage isn't more expensive than expected, there's no need for the corridor.
If there is an imbalance, though, the corridors will help prevent the "Obamacare death spiral," an increase in costs that could cause insurers to drop out of the program. That's the main goal of Republican opposition, to increase the likelihood of the program's failure. The ability to go around and tell voters that they fought to limit debt and to end an insurance company bailout — even though a doomed fight — is the next best thing.
Option 2: Approve the Keystone XL pipeline.
The State Department's final environmental impact assessment for the pipeline, which would funnel tar-sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, came out on Friday. Last June, Obama indicated that he'd oppose the pipeline if it didn't meet certain environmental benchmarks, which Friday's report didn't entirely answer. (Obama is apparently waiting for additional measures before making a decision.)
This, too, is a good political issue. Its shorthand is different than that of the risk corridors: "We fought to prevent new debt without adding the jobs that would come from the Keystone pipeline." Those jobs, often pitched as in the tens of thousands, are estimated by the State Department to be more like 35 over the long term, plus 15 contract positions. Building the pipeline will employ thousands of people for several months, to be sure, but the final job tally is not the sort of overwhelming victory that has been proposed. (In his pre-Super Bowl interview with Bill O'Reilly, Obama didn't seem impressed by Keystone's job creation potential.)
So this is the fight. One of these things will likely be the unified House Republican position on a debt ceiling increase: "Give us pipeline jobs / End the insurer bailout in exchange for taking on more debt." If those sound like campaign slogans, that's because they are.