CAMBRIDGE, Md. -- Perhaps no issue is more vexing for House Republicans than their looming, unavoidable responsibility to raise the debt ceiling.

Immigration reform is politically explosive, but optional. If the House Republicans' renewed effort to overhaul U.S. immigration law runs into trouble, they can simply set the issue aside. However, as the majority party in the lower chamber, they must approve an increase in the federal borrowing limit by the end of February or risk defaulting on U.S. debt.

Public anxiety over the debt has waned somewhat since 2010, when it was a potent campaign issue. But four years later, House Republicans still believe passionately that the debt and the deficit need to be addressed. Most are committed to avoiding default, and, in the aftermath of October's politically disastrous government shutdown, are wary of sparking another government crisis. That is certainly the view of their leadership.

Still, House Republicans view legislation to raise the debt ceiling as a natural vehicle to achieve badly needed fiscal reforms, and they would prefer to attach entitlement or tax measures to the next increase. That's not how President Obama and Senate Democrats see things, however. Similar to how they approached the issue in October, the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., are refusing to negotiate on the debt ceiling.

That disagreement threatens to put House Republicans in a political vice, squeezed by intransigent Democrats and a restless GOP base that would just as soon risk the worldwide financial calamity that might accompany default than empower Washington to borrow more money. As the House GOP gathered this week to chart its 2014 agenda, it reluctantly conceded that Democrats hold the advantage in the duel.

“Political reality” is how House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., described the Republicans' predicament, while being peppered with questions from reporters on how the GOP plans to tackle the debt ceiling. He said Republicans are considering a range of options for dealing with the debt ceiling and it appears that they are loosely coalescing around a strategy of insisting that the Senate moves first.

House Republicans spent most of the week sequestered in a Hyatt resort on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay, 90 miles east of Washington, for their annual policy and political retreat. On Friday, the final day of the retreat, they debated how to handle the debt ceiling. According to one source present for the discussion, they would like to attach approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to a debt ceiling increase or possibly a repeal of Obamacare's insurance company "bailout." They would vote on this first, hoping to pressure the Senate and the White House to acquiesce.

But they appear to be realistic, according to the source: "Everyone understands that we have to fight on something at the beginning, but are also resigned to the fact that they will have to raise the debt ceiling with the second vote."

The difficulty of the dilemma was on display Thursday during a news conference with a half dozen House Republicans under age 40. Trotted out to discuss how Obama’s policies are hurting younger Americans, reporters instead focused their questions on the debt ceiling and immigration. On immigration, the congressmen had plenty to say; on the debt ceiling, they were noticeably hesitant and evasive.

The members were adamant that the federal debt is a looming crisis for the country and that fiscal reforms should be attached to any increase in the debt limit. But asked what they intended to do when Obama and Reid predictably decline to negotiate on the Republicans’ terms, they demurred, offering political platitudes that reporters should ask Obama what his plan is because he has a responsibility to lead.

In a subsequent interview, 37-year-old Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., acknowledged that House Republicans have diminished leverage to exact fiscal reforms from the Democrats in exchange for approving a debt-ceiling increase in the aftermath of the October government shutdown. (House Republicans also are uninterested in distracting voters from the ongoing problems with Obamacare.)

“Yes, I think the hand is maybe a little weaker as it relates to tying those votes together,” Roby, who has opposed past debt ceiling increases, told the Washington Examiner.

Consequently, House Republicans are signaling that they might support a debt-ceiling increase that is essentially “clean” if Obama takes some sort of undefined action, presents Republicans with a strategy for tackling the debt or agrees to a process for further discussions. Whatever fig leaf is settled on, they are suggesting that they would not necessarily demand that it be tied directly to the debt-ceiling bill.

But they are looking for something concrete, not a promise from Obama to consider taking action at a later date. As part of that approach, House Republicans would refuse to act on the debt ceiling until the Democratic Senate approves legislation and sends it to the House for consideration.

“I’d love to see the Senate produce their plan, and we can then actually have a discussion,” Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said. “I think it’s important that they put their money where their mouth is.”