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U.S. Republicans voice little appetite for new shutdown fight

U.S. Representative Luke Messer (R-IN) (3rd L) arrives with his family for a vote at the U.S. Capitol in Washington October 5, 2013. REUTERS
U.S. Representative Luke Messer (R-IN) (3rd L) arrives with his family for a vote at the U.S. Capitol in Washington October 5, 2013. REUTERS

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Republican conservatives who took a hard line in the fight over October's government shutdown are voicing little appetite for another standoff over an approaching January 15 funding deadline for federal agencies.

Two things are different this time around, say conservatives in the House of Representatives.

The 16-day October shutdown was waged over Republican demands to stop the launch of Obamacare health insurance exchanges. Republicans are now gleefully watching the healthcare law's struggles and many believe it will collapse without much further prodding.

They are also expressing confidence they will not have to face a difficult choice from current budget talks, and believe that lead Republican negotiator Paul Ryan will not cut a deal that raises tax revenue. They are prepared to leave "sequester" automatic spending cuts in place if the budget panel fails.

"Frankly, no one wants to see a second shutdown and I think there's no reason we ought to have one," said Representative Luke Messer of Indiana, who pressed hard to defund and delay Obamacare in the run-up to the October shutdown.

"The shutdown is just a blip on the radar now. No one is talking about that anymore. What they're talking about is the major failures of the Affordable Care Act," Messer added.

Representative Todd Rokita, another Indiana Republican, said he did not see House conservatives threatening another shutdown in January because they made their point last time.

"What we were able to show to our supporters during the last round was that we were willing to fight," Rokita said. "Obamacare has now begun to be implemented, so it's falling under its own weight."

Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, one of the most conservative House members, said that after voting to defund and delay Obamacare, he was "happy to let the president stew in his own soup" as the healthcare law struggles.

FAITH IN RYAN

Finding agreement to fund the government before the January 15 deadline is largely in the hands of a 29-member budget negotiating committee.

The panel, commissioned under the deal to end the October shutdown and extend federal borrowing authority, aims to ease automatic spending cuts that will take a $91 billion bite out of funding next year for government agencies and discretionary programs and $18 billion from federal benefits programs.

Negotiators have made little progress in two public meetings, as Democrats demand more tax revenue and Republicans demand cuts to benefits programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The real talks are happening behind closed doors between Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, and top Democratic negotiator Patty Murray, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.

Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee urged Ryan and Murray on Monday to craft a two-year budget deal that would allow Congress to pass normal spending bills and avoid the threat of another shutdown.

Ryan said last week the two sides were "trying to find common ground, but we're not there yet."

But the Wisconsin Republican, the party's 2012 vice presidential candidate, has refused to consider raising tax revenues to offset the sequester cuts. House Republican conservatives say they believe Ryan will not give in on taxes.

"I think that conservatives and basically the conference as a whole has given a lot of leeway to Paul to sit down and work with Patty to find solutions," said Representative Sean Duffy, another Wisconsin Republican. "Paul knows where the lines are, where he can push it and where he can't."

If Democrats are unwilling to offer cuts to benefits programs that make up some two-thirds of federal spending, Republicans are vowing to keep the sequester cuts in place.

They believe they have a stronger position, because the cuts are enshrined in law, just as the launch of Obamacare health insurance was for October 1, which gave Democrats an advantage during the shutdown fight.

FEBRUARY DEBT CEILING DEADLINE

Even if the two sides can find a way forward on the January 15 funding deadline, another debt ceiling deadline looms on February 7, although a default threat would not likely occur until March or April because of the U.S. Treasury's cash-management measures.

Some conservatives are already eyeing potential demands for that deadline. Although there is little consensus so far, some said they should focus on shrinking deficits and reforming benefits programs.

Republicans were not able to effectively use the debt limit to make demands in October because the shutdown stretched into that deadline, conflating the two issues. Without a shutdown threat clouding the issue, demands to rein in spending on benefits may be more effective, Rokita said.

"There will be some clarity in message that we're able to have this conversation with the American people about living within our means again," he added.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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