The Debt-Limit First Move No One Wants to Make

House and Senate GOP leaders know they need to pass a clean debt-ceiling measure, but neither wants to go first.

Mitch McConnell, John Thune, and John Cornyn.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Daniel Newhauser, Sarah Mimms and Alex Rogers
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Daniel Newhauser and Sarah Mimms Alex Rogers
Oct. 22, 2015, 3:30 p.m.

House and Sen­ate lead­ers are at an im­passe about how to move a debt-ceil­ing bill, after sup­port for a House Re­pub­lic­an plan to con­di­tion­ally raise the na­tion’s bor­row­ing cap col­lapsed amid wide com­plaints with­in the con­fer­ence.

A Wed­nes­day whip check of a debt-lim­it bill craf­ted by the Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee found that it would not have enough GOP sup­port to pass the House, so lead­ers have aban­doned tent­at­ive plans to move for­ward with the bill, ac­cord­ing to sev­er­al sources with­in the lead­er­ship op­er­a­tion.

Many Re­pub­lic­ans ob­jec­ted to the fact that the meas­ure was not brought up through reg­u­lar or­der and that the full im­plic­a­tions of the plan could not be un­der­stood by mem­bers in the few days lead­ing up to what would have been a Fri­day vote.

Cent­rist mem­bers, mean­while, re­jec­ted the plan be­cause many be­lieve they will ul­ti­mately be called upon to bail out the con­fer­ence and vote for a clean debt-lim­it in­crease that most GOP mem­bers would re­ject. Vot­ing for the RSC plan and then a clean bill would have isol­ated them and made it ap­pear they were cav­ing while the rest of the con­fer­ence was stand­ing firm, ac­cord­ing to mem­bers and aides in­volved in the dis­cus­sions.

That same dy­nam­ic played out in 2014, when 28 Re­pub­lic­ans voted with most Demo­crats to ad­vance a debt-lim­it bill with no strings at­tached. But GOP lead­ers have said they are un­sure they could find that much sup­port this time around. Sev­er­al of the mem­bers who voted for the 2014 bill have since re­tired or been de­feated.

As a res­ult, the House may cede its po­s­i­tion as the body that will move a debt-lim­it bill first. Sev­er­al House lead­er­ship sources said the House would not likely act be­fore the Sen­ate, even though the up­per cham­ber’s unique pro­cessing is­sues would con­sid­er­ably slow the pro­cess.

Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers have said all week that they would wait on the House to act first, po­ten­tially ad­just­ing whatever the lower cham­ber sent over to en­sure that it could pass the Sen­ate with the ne­ces­sary Demo­crat­ic sup­port. Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 GOP lead­er, said Tues­day that lead­ers would prefer that the House act first be­cause the Sen­ate could need as long as a week to pass any­thing on the debt lim­it and lead­ers would hate to waste that floor time on something that couldn’t get to 218 votes in the House.

But with just a hand­ful of le­gis­lat­ive days left be­fore the coun­try reaches it debt lim­it, Sen­ate lead­er­ship may have to re­verse course and move be­fore the House. Lead­ers have not set a pub­lic dead­line for the House to act be­fore they move for­ward, but they ac­know­ledge that as they get closer to Nov. 3, the clock could force their hand.

“We’ve got, what, just two weeks from today ba­sic­ally,” Thune said Tues­day. “So yeah, I’d be game with the Sen­ate jump-start­ing this thing if ne­ces­sary.”

“We know what the dead­line is,” ad­ded GOP Sen­ate Whip John Cornyn on Thursday. “So we’re just wait­ing, for now, but at some point we prob­ably can’t af­ford to wait any longer.”

Lead­er­ship ex­pects to open any debt-lim­it le­gis­la­tion to amend­ment in the Sen­ate, which could present prob­lems in com­ing to agree­ment with the House, re­gard­less of which cham­ber moves first.

Some House lead­er­ship sources have said Speak­er John Boehner is con­tinu­ing to work with House Demo­crats and the White House to try to craft a com­prom­ise that would in­clude man­dat­ory spend­ing re­forms, thus at­tract­ing some Re­pub­lic­an votes. But time is run­ning short, and the White House has said of­ten that it does not plan to ne­go­ti­ate against the full faith and cred­it of the United States.

Whichever cham­ber moves first, Cornyn em­phas­ized Thursday, Con­gress will not al­low the U.S. to de­fault on its debt.

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