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Republicans offer condition-free US debt ceiling hike

House Republicans introduced a measure on Tuesday to extend US borrowing authority with no conditions attached, signalling they are stepping back from an election-year fiscal showdown.

WASHINGTON: House Republicans introduced a measure on Tuesday to extend US borrowing authority with no conditions attached, signalling they are stepping back from an election-year fiscal showdown.

House Speaker John Boehner, unable to gain sufficient support from his fractured party for a plan he unveiled Monday that would have tied the debt limit to a revision of military pension benefits, said he will now seek to pass a clean debt ceiling hike with help from Democrats.

The capitulation marks a clear victory for President Barack Obama in the wake of last October's crippling government shutdown that Americans blamed largely on Republicans.

Boehner described it as "a lost opportunity," telling reporters after a private meeting with his caucus that the two parties could have "worked together" to find cuts and reforms equal to or greater than the increase in the debt limit.

Vice President Joe Biden described Boehner's stand-down as "a victory for the country."

Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, said Obama was clearly "the one driving up the debt," currently at $17.3 trillion, and that the president will need to own it as lawmakers gear up for campaign season ahead of November's mid-term elections.

"The fact is we'll let the Democrats put the votes up, and we'll put a minimum number of (Republican) votes up to get it passed."

The House will consider the measure late Tuesday, and the vote is expected to be close. Should it pass, the bill would then go to the Democrat-held Senate.

Some Senate Republicans and aides acknowledged that conservatives might opt to not block the bill, even though they are against a clean debt-ceiling hike, in order to allow it to pass the chamber with purely Democratic votes.

Biden, in the US Capitol to swear in a new senator, said he was not concerned how the legislation gets over the finish line."If a clean bill comes up and it passes, that's all I care about, no matter what the make-up of the votes," he told reporters.

US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew warned last week that the country would exhaust its borrowing authority by February 7, and that it could use extraordinary measures only until February 27 before the debt ceiling would need to rise or government would risk not being able to pay all its bills.

The White House has insisted for weeks that raising the debt ceiling was non-negotiable, and it did not want to see policy riders attached.

Boehner made clear that a clean borrowing extension authority through mid-March of 2015 was not a done deal in a divided House of Representatives, and that Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi would need to rally her own troops.

"I made it clear to Miss Pelosi yesterday that if we went this route, I would expect virtually every Democrat to vote for it, and she agreed."

Lawmakers have little wiggle room. Congress is scheduled for a recess next week, leaving a handful of legislative days until the February 27 deadline.

Raising the debt ceiling has led to toxic congressional battles in recent years, especially after Boehner in 2011 demanded Washington match any debt ceiling increase with equally-sized budget reductions.

Gene Sperling, director of the White House National Economic Council, applauded Boehner's about-face.

"I hope the tactic of threatening default for budget debates is over, off the table and never to happen again," Sperling told reporters at a Washington breakfast.

Boehner's earlier plan would have scrapped a budget measure approved in December that slows the pace of raises in military pensions for certain retirees.

It was one of several sweeteners he floated to fellow Republicans, including legislation tying the debt ceiling hike to constructing the Keystone XL pipeline, or to changes in Obamacare and Medicare reimbursements.

Several conservatives baulked, and with Republicans unsure if Democrats would have gone along with the latest offer, Boehner was left with little choice but to throw in the towel or risk a potential credit default.

"It's the fact that we don't have 218 votes" in the 435-seat House, Boehner said.

"And when you don't have 218 votes, you have nothing."

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