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It’s Unclear Whether Senate Can Advance a Clean Debt Limit Hike

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)
(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday he will attempt to take up clean debt limit legislation this week, and though it’s unclear whether there are 60 votes to clear a procedural filibuster, an informal WGDB whip count indicates it certainly will be close.

Assuming Democratic leaders can hold all 54 of their members (they say they can and all indicators make it seem likely), Reid would need just six GOP senators to break ranks on the motions to open and close debate. On Monday, GOP Sen. Mark S. Kirk of Illinois said he would support both procedural motions and a final bill for a clean debt limit hike. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, when asked specifically whether she would vote for a clean debt ceiling bill, said she would “want to proceed on anything.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he would vote for a short-term clean debt limit increase, even though he views Reid’s attempts to move a bill this week as a “gimmick.”

“We’ve got a situation where you have a calendar running, you’ve got people who are frustrated and upset, and so let’s figure it out. We shouldn’t be dismissing anything,” Murkowski told reporters at votes Monday evening.

“I want to proceed on anything. I’ve got crab fishermen who are worried, alright?” the Alaska Republican said, when asked specifically about whether she could support cloture on a debt limit bill without the policy riders, entitlement reforms or spending cuts many Republicans have demanded for the past two Congresses.

Not all Senate Republicans, however, are keen on the idea of extending the nation’s borrowing capacity — in other words, paying bills Congress already has accrued — without exacting some sort of policy change from Democrats, whether it’s entitlement reforms, concessions on Obamacare or further spending cuts.

Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C. — who once called the push to shut down the government over defunding Obamacare “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard” — said Monday he would not support a clean debt limit increase. He said the GOP had to capitalize on the chance to score policy victories because if it didn’t, then it would not have many more political moments to do so.

“I think with the limited number of vehicles Republicans have in the Senate, we ought to take the opportunity to debate and amend as much as we can,” Burr said.

Burr also dismissed the idea that the Oct. 17 deadline presented by the Treasury Department is an absolute default deadline, arguing that with the amount of revenue taken in, Treasury could prioritize servicing the debt before paying other bills (a notion that likely won’t sit well with recipients of Social Security benefits, for example).

Of course, there even is division on this among Republicans, with many members of varying ideology and experience debating the seriousness of blowing by the debt limit deadline. Yet there might be more agreement on what the debt limit vote means as Congress’ deadline gets closer and Republicans start hearing from Wall Street, where some of their top political backers lie.

“The markets will act if we abandon the good faith and credit of the United States of America. The markets will punish us,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “Remember TARP?”

“Everybody I’ve talked to on Wall Street — they will believe that it’s very serious,” McCain said, adding he had not yet decided on how to vote on a clean debt limit bill. “As much as I appreciate all the elder statesmen in my party, what I respect more is what I’m hearing from my friends on Wall Street.”

Graham, while decrying votes this week as political theater, said he would vote on a shorter debt limit hike to avert default while negotiating a larger budget deal.

“That’s just a political exercise. I mean what do you tell people at home? You’re going to keep borrowing money forever?” Graham said. “I would vote for a short-term debt ceiling increase with the understanding we’d get room to try to come up with … a package that would address our debt problems. … It’s not like you’re going into uncharted waters here.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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