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Conservatives Lay Down Marker on Debt Ceiling

House GOP groups critical of Trump-Dem deal

Conservatives like Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, left and Mark Meadows, R-N.C., right, are signaling what they would need to support an increase in the debt limit. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Conservatives like Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, left and Mark Meadows, R-N.C., right, are signaling what they would need to support an increase in the debt limit. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Leaders from the House’s two main conservative caucuses said Thursday that they would not back the debt ceiling agreement President Donald Trump reached with Democrats this week and offered some tips on how to earn their support when the ceiling will need to be raised again in December.

Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker of North Carolina wrote a letter Thursday to Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., informing him his group, comprised of 153 GOP House members, is opposed to the deal Trump and congressional leaders announced to attach three-month extensions of the debt limit and current government funding levels to a hurricane relief measure.

“Such a debt limit increase seems to lack the votes to pass with Republican votes,” Walker said, noting only 79 Republicans voted for a 2015 measure that included a debt limit suspension and only 28 Republicans voted for debt limit legislation in 2014.

In the letter, Walker outlined 19 proposals that he said “while not an exhaustive list” would help secure more Republican votes for any debt ceiling increase. While Walker’s letter left open the possibility of leadership reversing course on the current debt limit plan, it seemed to be more designed for the next round of negotiations.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, whose group consists of 36 hardline conservatives, is also opposed to the debt ceiling deal Congress is set to consider this week and also seems focused on the next round of negotiations.

The North Carolina Republican said during a Bloomberg event Thursday morning that he has spoken to Trump since the president agreed to Democrats’ request for a three-month debt limit extension. Meadows said he didn’t focus on that decision in the conversation but rather the legislative battles ahead.

“My response is that we’ve got to get down to business and we need to do that today,” he said. “We need to do a long-term debt ceiling and start working on that today. We need to make sure that we get specifics on tax reform and do that in the month of September.”

Former Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan, speaking at the same Bloomberg event, said they plan to pitch leadership on a plan to extract the next debt ceiling debate from the broader budget negotiations.

“We’re going to try to say, ‘Take the 2017 reconciliation, amend those reconciliation instructions. Let’s do a long-term debt ceiling deal on the 2017 reconciliation. And let’s look at some structural change, some caps on spending that actually begin to address the problem and let’s get that out of the way so then we can just have one thing land on December,’” the Ohio Republican said.

Such a plan would require leadership to act quickly, as the 2017 reconciliation instructions expire with the end of the fiscal year on September 30.

Their ideas

The Freedom Caucus on Monday took a formal position in support of one idea for raising the debt ceiling that would get conservative votes.
Their plan — which Jordan, who came up with the concept, is still developing into legislation — would institute, effective next year, a cap on spending as a percentage of GDP that would be reduced over time.

The measure would provide unilateral authority for the debt ceiling to be raised so long as spending adhered to the caps.

Jordan said leadership didn’t have a plan on addressing the debt ceiling so conservatives put forward their own.

“We’re willing to take the tough votes,” Meadows said, noting polls show it’s unpopular for conservatives to support an increase in the debt ceiling. 

Enforcing caps on mandatory spending to get to a balanced budget, as the Freedom Caucus is proposing, was among the proposals Walker listed in his letter.

The RSC’s proposals included several items that would not earn Democratic support in the Senate. Such support would be needed for any debt limit increase unless Republicans used the budget reconciliation process to advance one.

Those partisan ideas included repealing the 2010 health care law, ending bailout authority created under the 2010 financial overhaul, strengthening work requirements for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program and work requirements for Medicaid recipients. 

A few of the ideas were phrased vaguely enough that they conceivably could draw bipartisan support, such as “reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program” and “Disability Insurance reforms, such as eliminating double dipping in the Unemployment Insurance program.”

Other proposals included a balanced budget amendment, allowing multiple reconciliation bills based off a single budget resolution and prohibiting suspensions of the debt limit.

Many of the ideas have broad support among Republicans, but one notably is an issue that has divided members. The RSC proposed making the current House ban on earmarks permanent.

In January, a large swath of Republicans supported a rules change to bring earmarks back on a limited basis, but Ryan convinced them to defer that debate. The conference has yet to revisit the issue.

Finally, the RSC proposed consequences for Congress failing to do its work, like canceling district work periods or members losing their pay if they fail to pass a budget resolution and appropriations bills.

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