After Deal, Debt Limit Talk Still Permeates Debates

McConnell dismisses calls to eliminate borrowing ceiling

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer sparred with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday on how to frame the debt limit deal Congress passed last week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer sparred with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday on how to frame the debt limit deal Congress passed last week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 13, 2017 at 5:04am

Policymakers are still talking about last week’s surprise deal to fund the government and suspend the debt limit, and they might be talking about it for a while.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has thrown cold water on the idea of abolishing the debt ceiling.

The idea gained some traction last week after reports that President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer had agreed to look at ways to end the practice of Congress needing to suspend the limit on federal borrowing.

“We will not be revisiting the debt ceiling until sometime next year and getting Congress to give up a tool like that would probably be quite a challenging undertaking,” McConnell said. “My assumption is that the debt ceiling will continue.”

The debt limit is a significant leverage point in the relationship between the legislative and executive branches, since not raising the debt limit is unthinkable to most all leadership figures.

On a press call earlier Tuesday, Schumer brushed aside comments McConnell made to The New York Times that Democrats celebrated too early their victory on the September deal that extended the debt limit and included a continuing resolution until Dec. 8.

“If they used extraordinary measures … there would be two cliffs instead of one,” Schumer said. “I don’t know why they would want to do that.”

But in any case, the Treasury Department’s deploying of “extraordinary measures” — such as rearranging funds related to federal retirement accounts — has become entirely routine.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer acknowledged Tuesday that the debt ceiling deadline can be pushed into 2018 with extraordinary measures but like Schumer, he disputed the notion that doing so would take away Democratic leverage in the December spending negotiations.

“They have never passed a fiscal bill, including Harvey relief … without Democratic votes,” Hoyer said.

Behind the deal

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, speaking to CNBC in New York on Tuesday morning before heading back to Washington for meetings on Capitol Hill, praised President Donald Trump for the agreement with Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi that allowed for the debt limit suspension.

“We were in the middle of two major hurricanes. We needed to get money to the states. We were in the middle of having the debt limit, and the president was very clear. He wanted to cut a deal. He wanted to cut a deal quickly. He moved the debt limit substantially further back. We had to fund the government,” Mnuchin said. “We were running out of money. I was operating it like a piggy bank, and we got out of there and showed the American public that we are putting politics aside.”

The Treasury secretary also pointed to another possible deal which would have addressed the debt limit for a full year, but also put discretionary spending for the federal government on autopilot for a full year as well.

“We could have done a one-year deal on the debt ceiling,” Mnuchin said. “Had we done that, it would have been linked to one year of additional funding for the government.”

“But the president wants to raise military spending.  That’s one of his main priorities. Particularly in the midst of what’s going on in North Korea and other areas,” Mnuchin continued. “The president wants to increase military spending, and that’s something he’s going to demand for December.”

The desire of Trump and many lawmakers to boost spending for the Pentagon and other security program functions points to the importance of getting a bipartisan budget deal. The defense authorization bill currently on the Senate floor has been drafted to assume a spending level that does not comply with current caps.

No budget decisions

Somewhat separately, there was still no decision as to when the Senate might advance a fiscal 2018 budget resolution, which is a prerequisite for proceeding with an overhaul of the tax code under the expedited process known as reconciliation.

Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi said no decisions have been made about when his committee will mark up that fiscal 2018 budget resolution.

“I expect to mark up a budget. It’s up to the leader when we do it,” the Wyoming Republican said.

The House has also yet to bring a budget resolution to the floor, and with some conservatives on that side of the Capitol pushing to see text of a tax overhaul before they agree to vote for adoption of a resolution, the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee may well have to jump first.

Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch said tax negotiators for both chambers and the administration were “about a week away” from a tax accord to shape the overhaul.

“We’re going to write our own bill, but we are working very closely with the House,” the Utah Republican said.

Alan K. Ota and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.