Washington (CNN) - In a sharp turnaround, House Republican leaders signaled Thursday they are open to a backup debt ceiling plan pushed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to avoid a default on the nation's credit.
"What may look like something less than optimal today, if we're unable to get to an agreement, might look pretty good a couple of weeks from now," House Speaker John Boehner said during a Capitol Hill news conference.
Boehner, R-Ohio, emphasized the McConnell proposal was something he thought should be on the table only if negotiations collapsed.
"I think it's worth keeping on the table. There are a lot of options that people have floated and, frankly, I think it's an option that may be worthy at some point," Boehner said.
The change in position was notable because just a day earlier, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, said the measure couldn't pass the House.
But GOP aides now say that as talks remain stalled and the deadline nears, leaders are leaving open the option that some version of the McConnell plan could come before the House.
McConnell's proposal would allow three short-term increases to the debt ceiling between now and the end of next year. Congress could vote against an increase by passing a resolution of disapproval. The president could then veto the resolution of disapproval, but it would be unlikely Congress would have enough votes to override his veto.
But now, as the White House negotiations falter, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and McConnell, R-Kentucky, are working on a variation of the Senate GOP leader's plan that could serve as way around the debt impasse. It would combine McConnell's proposal, which requires three votes on short-term increases in the debt limit, with a Democratic proposal that would create a bipartisan commission to recommend entitlement and spending cuts, tax increases and other measures designed to reduce the debt, according to congressional aides. Congress would then vote on the package but would not be allowed to amend it.
In addition, aides said Reid and McConnell are considering including in the plan more than $1 trillion in spending cuts that the Biden-led talks had identified, in a bid to gain support from House Republicans.
House conservatives have strongly opposed McConnell's original framework because it would give the president the authority to raise the debt ceiling without requiring any spending cuts in return.
One House GOP congressional aide said details were still scarce on the Senate plan, but said "it's feasible" House Republicans could accept a version of the McConnell-Reid plan if spending cuts were included.
In a sign of the tough challenge for Speaker Boehner to get conservative support, one of his lieutenants at the leadership table, freshman Rep. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, dismissed McConnell's back up plan as "unworthy, unrealistic and an abdication of the responsibility of the majority."
But Scott also conceded that as the clock ticked down toward the deadline - even with a group of conservatives opposed to any deal - Boehner could get enough votes to pass something.
"I think there's a possibility that a lot of folks will do a lot of things when the pressure gets really hot. The only question is can you survive those, that abdication, come election day in about 15 or 16 months," Scott said.
As Democrats accused Cantor of undermining White House negotiations after a tense exchange with Obama at the end of Wednesday's meeting, both he and Boehner sought to show they are united. At one point during Thursday's Capitol Hill press conference, Boehner walked over to Cantor, who was answering a question about the reported split between them, and put his arm around him, as reporters and aides to the leaders chuckled at the deliberate public gesture. The sound of cameras clicking could be heard as photographers moved quickly to capture the moment.
Boehner then defended Cantor, saying, "We have been in this fight together and any suggestion about the role that Eric has played in these meetings has been anything less than helpful is just wrong."