Republicans Eye Debt Ceiling for Leverage on a Host of Issues

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 04: U.S. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) participates in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote on a resolution on Syria on Capitol Hill September 4, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to authorize U.S. President Barack Obama to use limited force against Syria after adopting amendments from U.S. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-NV). (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
Dec. 18, 2013, 3:43 p.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans say they want something in ex­change for rais­ing the debt ceil­ing. They just don’t know what that “thing” is yet.

House Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ry­an, who re­ceived some bi­par­tis­an points for ne­go­ti­at­ing a budget deal that takes a gov­ern­ment shut­down off the table for two years, has signaled an im­pend­ing fight. “We don’t want noth­ing out of this debt lim­it,” Ry­an said on Fox News Sunday. “We’re go­ing to de­cide what it is we can ac­com­plish out of this debt-lim­it fight.”

Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers echoed Ry­an’s com­ments, but skimped on spe­cif­ics. “I doubt that the House, or, for that mat­ter, the Sen­ate, is will­ing to give the pres­id­ent a clean debt-ceil­ing in­crease,” Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell told re­port­ers Tues­day. “I can’t ima­gine it be­ing done ‘clean,’ so we’ll have to see what the House in­sists on adding to it as a con­di­tion for pas­sage.”

House Re­pub­lic­ans re­turn­ing from re­cess will likely dis­cuss what they want from rais­ing the debt lim­it and how they want to get it. But right now, ideas are sort of all over the place, from en­ergy to health care. Ry­an has brought up the Key­stone XL pipeline. Mc­Con­nell’s primary chal­lenger, Matt Bev­in, told The Hill it should be used to de­fund Obama­care.

“I’d like to at­tach to that some real health care re­forms that will pre­serve free­dom and choice for Amer­ic­ans, based on what we’re see­ing right now,” said Sen. Ron John­son, R-Wis. “There are a num­ber of things I’m will­ing to con­sider. The House is go­ing to pretty well dic­tate that, but we could do some en­ergy, we could do some tax re­form. There are a num­ber of things we can do some really good pieces of le­gis­la­tion that maybe we should tie to the debt ceil­ing.”

Re­pub­lic­ans haven’t craf­ted a strategy, in large part be­cause most of the at­ten­tion has been ex­hausted on the budget and nom­in­a­tions in the Sen­ate. “I am not really ready to talk about that,” said Sen. Bob Cork­er, R-Tenn. “I just haven’t thought bey­ond the budget yet.”

“I want to know the cir­cum­stances, I want to know how long — I gotta know how they want to go about it be­fore I would want to do that,” Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., said of rais­ing the debt ceil­ing.

The dead­line also isn’t pres­sur­ing law­makers in­to ac­tion, par­tic­u­larly since the tim­ing of the debt-lim­it in­crease isn’t even ex­actly clear. The deal that ended the gov­ern­ment shut­down sus­pen­ded the debt ceil­ing un­til Feb. 7. After that, the Treas­ury De­part­ment can use so-called ex­traordin­ary meas­ures to stave off the need for Con­gress to in­crease the debt lim­it. Such meas­ures las­ted five months last time around.

Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary Jac­ob Lew pre­dicted in Novem­ber that there was about a month’s worth of ex­traordin­ary meas­ures. The Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice es­tim­ated there could be enough rev­en­ue to push off the ac­tu­al debt-lim­it dead­line to March, or even as late as June.

But the Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter, which has made ac­cur­ate fore­casts in the past, pre­dicts Con­gress will most likely have to act by the end of March. Un­like in 2013, the cen­ter pre­dicts few­er meas­ures will be avail­able in Feb­ru­ary, and it be­lieves the CBO es­tim­a­tion is highly un­likely.

The tim­ing of the debt-ceil­ing dead­line could make rais­ing it, or not rais­ing it, a per­il­ous line to walk. Midterms are just around the corner, and a num­ber of Re­pub­lic­an law­makers are fa­cing primary and gen­er­al elec­tion chal­lenges.

In the mean­time, the dis­cus­sions have been mostly in­form­al. Sen. Johnny Isak­son, R-Ga., said the debt lim­it has been dis­cussed in some meet­ings, but they haven’t been or­gan­ized meet­ings that rep­res­ent the views of the con­fer­ence.

“Ob­vi­ously the debt ceil­ing is the most im­port­ant de­bate that we’ll have, and it’s the ap­pro­pri­ate place for us to try and find some com­mon ground on some struc­tur­al im­prove­ments that will help us re­duce our debt and de­fi­cit over time,” Isak­son said. But what about do­ing something on health care or some oth­er GOP pri­or­ity? “We’ve got enough is­sues where if we can in­cor­por­ate some things in there to­geth­er, we’d be bet­ter off,” he said.

Cer­tainly, Re­pub­lic­ans aren’t go­ing to say they want noth­ing in re­turn for rais­ing the debt lim­it. “Every ounce of fisc­al dis­cip­line we’ve had has come by vir­tue of debt-ceil­ing ne­go­ti­ations, so to let that pass, to raise the debt ceil­ing without ad­dress­ing the source of our long-term struc­tur­al de­fi­cit, wouldn’t be a good thing,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ar­iz.

“Every time we vote to in­crease the debt lim­it without any sort of meas­ures — it doesn’t have to be the whole thing — but without some sort of mean­ing­ful step that be­gins to place us on a path to­wards get­ting the debt un­der con­trol, I think is a mis­take,” said Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla.

The White House hasn’t budged from its po­s­i­tion either. “We’re not pre­pared to bar­gain with the full faith and cred­it of the United States,” Jason Fur­man, chair­man of the White House Coun­cil of Eco­nom­ic Ad­visers, said Wed­nes­day. “”¦ There’s still a lot of things that could force a dis­cus­sion about our fisc­al fu­ture, but threat­en­ing de­fault isn’t one of them.”

For now, en­joy the re­l­at­ive fisc­al peace on Cap­it­ol Hill, be­cause it won’t last for long. Asked wheth­er the budget deal has eased the GOP aver­sion to rais­ing the debt lim­it, John­son said, “Not at all.”

“This budget deal just pre­vents gov­ern­ment shut­down,” he ad­ded.

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