Which Side Will Trump Take in the Next Debt-Ceiling Fight?

Hill conservatives are unsure whether they’ll be battling alongside or against the White House.

Mick Mulvaney testifies on Jan. 24 at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Budget Committee.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Daniel Newhauser and Alex Rogers
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Daniel Newhauser and Alex Rogers
Feb. 16, 2017, 8:30 p.m.

Con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans are gird­ing for a debt-ceil­ing fight later this year. The only prob­lem is they have no idea wheth­er they’ll be fight­ing with or against the White House.

Pres­id­ent Trump, un­like much of the rest of his party, has not seemed to pri­or­it­ize debt re­duc­tion. He has de­scribed him­self as the “King of Debt” in the busi­ness world, and in gov­ern­ment, Trump has a pro­posed a slate of costly policies, such as in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing, without yet ex­plain­ing how he would pay for them.

At the same time, Trump’s newly con­firmed budget dir­ect­or, former Rep. Mick Mul­vaney, made a ca­reer on call­ing for debt re­duc­tion, vot­ing along with con­gres­sion­al con­ser­vat­ives to try to ex­tract budget-cut­ting con­ces­sions from Pres­id­ent Obama as a pre­con­di­tion for rais­ing the debt ceil­ing—and even down­play­ing the risk of de­fault.

That leaves Re­pub­lic­ans with mixed mes­sages, and mostly in the dark about how the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will handle one of the most con­sequen­tial is­sues of the le­gis­lat­ive year. The White House did not provide com­ment on Trump’s po­s­i­tion by pub­lic­a­tion time.

Both Re­pub­lic­ans who want to raise the debt ceil­ing with no drama and those who want to use it to cut spend­ing see al­lies in the White House, but neither can be sure. On one thing they can agree: They’re re­lieved that last week the debt-ceil­ing dead­line was moved from early spring to late sum­mer.

Sen. Ted Cruz, who along with House con­ser­vat­ives ad­voc­ated us­ing the debt ceil­ing as a tool to en­act long-term spend­ing changes, said that in Mul­vaney, he sees a strong fisc­al con­ser­vat­ive who will rein in spend­ing.

“His­tor­ic­ally, the debt ceil­ing has proven one of the most ef­fect­ive levers for­cing Con­gress to ad­dress ser­i­ous solu­tions to the fisc­al crisis fa­cing this na­tion,” Cruz said. When asked wheth­er he would fa­vor adding con­di­tions to a debt-ceil­ing in­crease, he answered, “We need to be do­ing everything pos­sible to stop bank­rupt­ing this coun­try and mort­ga­ging the fu­tures of the next gen­er­a­tion.”

Oth­er mem­bers, however, think the ad­min­is­tra­tion will not risk a down­grade of the coun­try’s cred­it­wor­thi­ness.

“I’m con­fid­ent that Sec­ret­ary of the Treas­ury [Steven] Mnuchin be­lieves that a de­fault will be bad and they will do everything in their power to avoid that,” Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham said. “I’m ad­voc­at­ing for us not to de­fault. … It’s one of the dirty parts of be­ing a pub­lic of­fi­cial: You have to make de­cisions that are not pop­u­lar but need to be made.”

Still oth­er mem­bers are some­where in the middle. Sen. Ro­ger Wick­er said that while he ex­pects Mul­vaney to ap­proach the debt ceil­ing as a lever­age point, he also ex­pects that at the end of the day, the ad­min­is­tra­tion will have to raise the debt ceil­ing.

“I did have a very thor­ough con­ver­sa­tion with Rep­res­ent­at­ive Mul­vaney … and we did talk about that. Clearly he un­der­stands that the debt ceil­ing is go­ing to have to be raised as a mat­ter of simple arith­met­ic,” Wick­er said. “When it takes 10 years at least to bal­ance the budget, clearly there has to be a little debt for the nine years that get you there.”

Still, while heartened by Mul­vaney’s pres­ence in the ad­min­is­tra­tion, con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers of the House are privately anxious about how Trump him­self will view the debt ceil­ing. At a re­treat in Man­hat­tan last week, mem­bers of the House Free­dom Caucus and Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee kicked around ideas about what they could at­tach to a debt-ceil­ing in­crease.

“I’m not go­ing to in­crease this $20 tril­lion debt right now without look­ing at ways to do the things we said we were go­ing to do for the last six years,” Rep. Raul Lab­rador said.

Rep. Tom Cole said he hopes the ad­min­is­tra­tion will be open to en­ti­tle­ment re­form, though Trump him­self has said he does not want to change So­cial Se­cur­ity, Medi­care, and Medi­caid.

“I would like to see a plan that ad­dresses the long-term drivers of the debt,” Cole said. “That means you’ve got to deal with en­ti­tle­ments. There’s no way oth­er than to be open to some forms of re­form­ing our en­ti­tle­ment sys­tem.”

Mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, however, are wary of adding ex­traneous pro­vi­sions to the debt-ceil­ing in­crease, es­pe­cially be­cause it would have to pass the Sen­ate with 60 votes, mean­ing Demo­crats would have to help pass the meas­ure.

“If we load the House bill up with a bunch of pro­vi­sions that we know have no chance of go­ing through the Sen­ate, we’re just once again rais­ing ex­pect­a­tions un­real­ist­ic­ally only to have them dashed later,” Rep. Charlie Dent said. “The bot­tom line is we have to pass the debt ceil­ing and we have to do it with as little drama as pos­sible. Some folks who said they’d nev­er, ever, ever, ever vote for a debt-ceil­ing [in­crease], I hope that changes in the new Con­gress.”

If, in­deed, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and con­gres­sion­al lead­ers de­cide that a clean debt-ceil­ing in­crease is the way to go, they will likely have at least some help from Demo­crats. House Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er said that al­though Demo­crats have myri­ad dis­agree­ments with the ad­min­is­tra­tion on policy, a clean debt-ceil­ing boost would draw Demo­crat­ic votes.

“If they do that and it’s not com­prom­ised by polit­ic­al games­man­ship, then I think that they will have some sup­port,” Hoy­er said. “They’ll lose Re­pub­lic­ans who have said through the years they won’t vote for debt-lim­it ex­ten­sions on the the­ory that that’s what causes the debt.”

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