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House might take up bill to shift debt limit power to Treasury

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said the bill may be the most ‘viable’ path to a deal limit deal

Rep. Brendan F. Boyle, D-Pa., speaks after a news conference at the Capitol on Sept. 25, 2019. His debt limit measure, Democrats say, contains provisions similar to those backed in the past by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Rep. Brendan F. Boyle, D-Pa., speaks after a news conference at the Capitol on Sept. 25, 2019. His debt limit measure, Democrats say, contains provisions similar to those backed in the past by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Hoping to end the partisan impasse over lifting the statutory debt ceiling, House leaders are considering taking up legislation designed to relieve Congress of the burden.

A two-sentence bill sponsored by Rep. Brendan F. Boyle, D-Pa., vice chairman of the Budget Committee, would give the Treasury Department power to raise the debt limit unilaterally. The measure simply states that the debt limit “shall be treated as being equal to such greater dollar amount as the Secretary of the Treasury may periodically determine.”

Democrats say the measure contains provisions similar to those enacted as part of a budget agreement in 2011, initially proposed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and used again to end a 2013 debt limit standoff. Dubbed the “McConnell rule,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week that the idea “has merit.” 

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Tuesday that the Boyle bill may be the most “viable” path to a debt limit deal that ends the partisan gridlock. A short-term debt limit increase is expected to run dry in December, forcing new congressional action to ensure the government can pay all its bills.

“The more viable option is to adopt a process that was suggested by Sen. McConnell a few years ago,” Hoyer said. “Now, of course, the fact that he made that does not mean he would support it, which is sad.”

The Boyle bill is different in that those prior laws gave Treasury more limited authority, along with a chance for lawmakers to block any attempt to raise the debt ceiling. 

The 2011 law gave the administration room to boost the limit by $2.1 trillion in installments, subject to a congressional “resolution of disapproval.” If such a resolution were adopted, the president could veto it, which would require two-thirds votes in both chambers to override. The 2013 law contained a similar disapproval process, but Treasury was given the ability to suspend the debt limit through Feb. 7, 2014, rather than lift the cap by a certain dollar amount.

Hoyer’s reference to the earlier McConnell-backed process signals that Democratic leaders could potentially amend the Boyle bill before it reaches the floor to add a congressional disapproval option.

Republicans have refused to back any debt limit increase while Democrats pursue a partisan budget reconciliation measure that could cost trillions of dollars. McConnell has said Democrats should pass a debt limit increase on their own through the reconciliation process.

To pass the short-term debt deal this month, McConnell and 10 other Senate Republicans agreed to join Democrats on a procedural vote allowing the measure to advance. But McConnell, in a letter to President Joe Biden, said he would not help Democrats a second time.

“I will not be a party to any future effort to mitigate the consequences of Democratic mismanagement,” the Kentucky Republican said in his Oct. 8 letter. “They cannot invent another crisis and ask for my help.”

Hoyer said last week that he planned to bring legislation to the House as early as this month offering a long-term solution to the debt limit.  He said he would personally prefer abolishing the debt limit altogether, as proposed in a bill by Democratic Rep. Bill Foster of Illinois. Foster is also a co-sponsor of the Boyle bill.

Hoyer and other Democrats say the debt limit has done little to curb rising deficits, while creating a political crisis each time it must be lifted that can rattle financial markets. But many Republicans oppose abolishing the debt ceiling, saying it forces a useful check on federal borrowing and can lead to spending restraints.

While he did not rule out a potential House vote to abolish the debt limit, Hoyer said, “We probably can’t get that through the Senate.”

Bringing Boyle’s bill to the floor could also put the fourth-term lawmaker in the spotlight during the debate. One of his lead co-sponsors is retiring House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., and Boyle is considered a leading potential successor as the top Democrat on that panel after Yarmuth’s departure.

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