House Republicans have dropped plans to vote this week on a conditional debt ceiling hike, leaving in limbo any feasible plan to raise the nation's borrowing limit by a Nov. 3 deadline.
Republican leaders were unable to field enough support to pass legislation endorsed by the Republican Study Committee, a faction made up of many conservative fiscal hawks.
"People have decided the best thing to do is to move on to a Plan B," said Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, the author of the legislation.
Despite the RSC's large membership, other GOP lawmakers balked at voting on a bill that would likely go nowhere in the Senate. The bill included a provision requiring the Senate to disallow filibusters of appropriations measures, which would require a rules change Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., opposes.
"It seemed to me it probably wasn't likely to be acceptable," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. "Let's keep working until we find something that not only we can vote for, but the Senate can vote for. Otherwise, you are having a straw vote for no particularly good reason."
With just days left until the Treasury runs out of funds, Republicans are now scrambling to come up with another bill that can increase the borrowing limit with at least some bipartisan support. Republicans could attempt a variety of options, including taking up a separate measure that reins in spending alongside another bill that lifts the debt limit unconditionally.
A debt ceiling proposal could also attract GOP votes by boosting military spending that was cut by the Budget Control Act, which imposed spending caps known as the sequester.
"The White House has said it's willing to put some things with it if it helps," Cole said. "For a lot of our members, sequester relief for our military is a hugely important thing."
According to some lawmakers, GOP leaders are aiming for at long-term debt ceiling increase, although Flores said a short-term increase could be on the table.
Democrats, meanwhile, are insisting on a "clean" bill that would raise the $18.1 trillion debt limit with no strings attached. But that would require at least 30 Republican votes to pass, and this move would also anger the majority of the GOP who are eager to rein in the nation's spending.
"I don't think that's the preferred solution," Cole said. "And it dramatically narrows the number of Republicans who will support it."
Some lawmakers questioned whether Republicans could round up the 30 votes within their own party to pass a debt limit increase with no strings attached.
But the House GOP has in the past relied on Democrats to pass a debt ceiling increase without losing too many Republicans.
"The closer we get to the deadline, I suspect we'll find the votes," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa.
The Flores bill would have increased the nation's borrowing limit by $1.5 billion in exchange for a freeze in new government regulations until July 1, 2017. The bill also required Congress to remain in session until it passes required spending legislation, and it mandated a vote on a balanced budget amendment by the end of the year.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she was alarmed by the last-minute scrambling on a bill to raise the debt ceiling, which she said is needed to pay the nation's bills and expenses that Congress has already approved.
"The Constitution says the full faith and credit of the United States should never be in doubt," Pelosi said. "But Republicans are placing it in doubt. It's pretty drastic."
The debt ceiling deadline comes as the House prepares to elect a new speaker on Oct. 29. The Republican conference will hold an internal election on Oct. 28 and they are expected to overwhelmingly choose Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
But most hope House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, clears a debt ceiling increase before he steps down on Oct. 30. In November, the next speaker will have to focus on a Dec. 11 deadline to fund the federal government. Those talks are happening at the staff level but have otherwise been on hold while leaders deal with the debt ceiling.
"The speaker would like to get rid of the debt ceiling before there is a new speaker," Cole said.