WASHINGTON — There is no Republican plan, let alone a bill, to solve the debt ceiling problem. But some Republican lawmakers are floating an idea to include in a package: rescind approved but unspent Covid relief funds.

Retiring unused pandemic response money «certainly could» be a debt-ceiling measure to prevent default, said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., chairman of the powerful Rules Committee.

«I hope we see that,» Cole said. «It’s something that should be on the table.»

Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., who sits on the Ways and Means Committee that oversees taxes and much of the US budget, said he’s open to it. It would be «insane» for Congress not to consider options to reduce red ink by banning wasteful spending, Kelly said.

“There are areas where we shouldn’t be spending that we could really reposition or just not spend at, and then reduce our debt,” he said.

“We can make cuts that don’t hurt people,” Kelly added.

The idea is not yet ready for prime time in the GOP-led House, the Democratic-controlled Senate or the White House. But it’s as specific as the Republicans have gotten in terms of what they’d like to attach to an increase in the debt limit, a question on which Republican lawmakers have been remarkably vague, even as they demand spending cuts as a concession to pay the country’s bills. The Treasury Department has set a June 5 deadline for Congress to act or breach the debt limit.

House Republican aides point out government estimates showing that $4.61 trillion in Covid-19 spending has been authorized, but $4.12 trillion has been spent. That leaves almost $500 billion in unspent funds, though some of that has been «forced» into certain amounts of money and may be difficult to pay back to the US Treasury.

Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., a member of Ways and Means, signaled his support for the idea, but warned there will be challenges in identifying and reclaiming unspent money.

“There are some disputes about what the dollar amounts really are, and what is technically obligated and what is not obligated,” Schweikert said. “Because we have some states that… put it in their rainy day funds. And there is a specific language that you cannot supplant. So that’s the kind of stuff you’re going to have to dig into and find out what’s really there.»

At an Oversight Committee hearing on federal pandemic spending Wednesday, Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., pressed the US Government Accountability Office about how much of the money is left unsaid.

“As of November 2022, there is about $157 billion in unencumbered funds,” responded Gene Dodaro, the comptroller general.

“No commitments, no commitments, no spending?” Biggs asked.

«Right,» Dodaro replied.

On Capitol Hill, some Republicans believe a proposal like tapping into excess Covid money could fall into a political sweet spot that adheres to bipartisan red lines on the debt ceiling. It may meet the GOP’s demands to cut some spending, though it won’t come close to addressing conservative desires to balance the budget. It’s the kind of add-on Democrats may be willing to dismiss as a fig leaf, given that it’s money not spent, and especially as President Joe Biden looks to declare victory against covid.

The White House said Biden made it clear in his meeting Tuesday with President Kevin McCarthy that preventing default «is not negotiable or conditional.» Most Democrats support Biden and insist that the debt ceiling be removed without conditions.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said negotiating the debt limit is «an impossibility.» But when she was asked at length about the political merits of returning some Covid money to the Treasury, she pointed to her openness to review ideas.

“I have to take a look and see what has been compromised, and so on. I just want to see where that is, a lot of it has been forced,» DeLauro said.

McCarthy’s office did not comment on the idea of ​​a debt limit. At a news conference Thursday, McCarthy declined to say when Republicans will put pen to paper on a spending-cutting plan.

“I am not going to negotiate this in the press. I’m sorry,” she said.

As for a timeline, McCarthy said only that he and Biden look forward to meeting again after what he called a positive meeting.

Whether the recovery of the Covid money is “part of the negotiations that the speaker is starting, that remains to be seen,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. «But as appropriators, we’re going to clean it all up.»

Schweikert said recovering the Covid funds could be «low fruit» for Congress to target a debt limit extension.

«Even around here today,» he added, «lowering fruit requires some intellectual gymnastics.»