With so much attention focused on what, if anything, can be accomplished by the budget conference, it would be easy to forget about the debt limit.
But many of the budget conferees have not forgotten.
“My goal is to fund the government between now and Sept. 30 and make sure we don’t have another government shutdown,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “When it comes to raising the debt limit for a long period of time — that’s where we need to talk about entitlement reform and tax code reform.”
He added: “That’s the point of leverage.”
The October deal that ended the government shutdown, funded the federal government through Jan. 15, and created the budget conference also raised the debt limit through Feb. 7. And, budget deal or not, Congress will still be faced with whether to lift that limit.
If the limit isn’t increased by Feb. 7, the Treasury Department still has some tools, often called “extraordinary measures,” to keep paying the nation’s obligations. But the Bipartisan Policy Center estimates those will run out by the end of February or mid-March.
When asked about the debt limit as another arena for entitlement and tax negotiations, Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who serves as ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, said, “We’re going to need to continue to use every opportunity to create discussions for progress.”
“Even if we can’t reach an agreement in this committee on some of these issues, maybe we can begin a discussion that will lead to an agreement in January and February,” he said.
Indeed, many members are banking on budget negotiations yielding enough accord that it would alleviate the pressure created by the debt limit in the past.
“Let’s do this budget and reach an accord, and I think if we reach the right accord, it will give us the answer about what the debt limit should be,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “I don’t want to do this and then go through a separate negotiation about the debt limit a month later.”
It’s unclear whether or how the debt ceiling will be used to extract any sort of concessions this time around, particularly because the deadline to increase it will come closer to the 2014 midterm elections. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he won’t use it in the fight to stop Obamacare.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, called for the debt limit to be a part of any budget deal that emerges from the conference.
“The whole issue of the debt ceiling should be a part of this discussion,” he said. “If there’s an agreement reached, there should be a comprehensive agreement.”
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