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House leaders reject tying debt limit to defense bill

Republicans won't help with votes for the debt limit and defense bill doesn't have enough Democratic support

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., left, and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., walk back to the Capitol after an event on Thursday.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., left, and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., walk back to the Capitol after an event on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House leaders warned Thursday they likely can’t address the debt limit by linking it to the annual defense authorization bill, a move Senate leaders have discussed in negotiations to ensure the Treasury can continue paying its financial obligations beyond Dec. 15.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Republicans have made clear they’re not going to vote for the debt limit and there aren’t enough Democrats willing to vote for the defense bill to get it through without significant GOP support. 

“I don’t think that would pass,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters Thursday when asked about the idea of using the defense bill to address the debt limit.

“We’re not discussing it over here,” Hoyer said in a brief interview. “We don’t think it’s the best option because we’re not sure we can do it.”

When a version of the defense bill passed the House in September, 38 Democrats voted against the measure because of the Pentagon funding level, among other issues. While they had plenty of GOP votes then to make up the difference, that likely wouldn’t be the case if a debt limit measure were attached.

“We’ve told the Senate that. That’s the reality. Those are the numbers,” Hoyer said Thursday.

Either way, Hoyer said the House will vote on debt limit legislation next week but what bill that is depends on the Senate negotiations. The House is also expected to consider a bicameral version of the defense bill.

Republicans in both chambers have repeatedly said they don’t want to help Democrats increase or suspend the debt limit due to the trillions of dollars of spending from Democrats this year. Democrats used the budget reconciliation process to pass a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package in March and the Senate is hoping by Christmas to pass a likely altered version of a House-passed $2.2 trillion climate and social spending package.

GOP leaders have argued that since Democrats have used the reconciliation process to enact spending without Republican votes, they should use the same process to increase the debt limit on their own. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has pushed that strategy but also waffled at times. In October, he provided enough GOP votes for cloture on a short-term debt limit measure, clearing a procedural hurdle that allowed Senate Democrats to pass a $480 billion debt limit increase on their own.

That short-term measure was designed to last into December. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has told Congress that without additional borrowing room, the government may exhaust its ability to pay its financial obligations by Dec. 15. 

Senate talks 

McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., have been holding talks on the debt ceiling but have not revealed any details. Neither of their offices responded to requests for comment, and senators in both parties have said they’re also in the dark.

Hoyer confirmed that using the defense bill as a vehicle was one option Senate leaders have considered, but he wasn’t sure Thursday evening whether it was still on the table.

McConnell met with McCarthy on Thursday but the senator declined to answer reporters’ questions afterward. McCarthy declined to confirm whether the debt limit was the subject of their discussion, but he told reporters he didn’t think the defense bill could pass the House if the debt limit were attached.

Reconciliation is “the way to do it,” McCarthy said. “They should’ve done it already. They should move it now.”

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth said in an interview that he is frustrated with the lack of transparency around the plan for addressing the debt limit given the looming deadline. The Kentucky Democrat has heard little beyond that Schumer and McConnell are talking, and he is not sure Schumer will be able to get to a resolution that avoids reconciliation.

“On the one hand, he’s saying no reconciliation, then he’s apparently negotiating to Mitch about not obstructing it, so we can do it in just a short period of time,” Yarmuth said. “But [Republicans] are going to criticize us no matter what. No matter how it gets done, they’re gonna say, ‘Oh, Democrats raised the debt ceiling.’ So what? Just do it.”

Democrats have said they don’t want to set the precedent of using reconciliation to raise the debt limit because that could turn what’s traditionally been a loathed but routine bipartisan action into a cumbersome partisan process.

But there’s also political apathy among Democrats to use reconciliation because the budget rules would likely require the debt limit to be increased by a specific number that could be used in political attack ads, rather than suspended. 

“Nobody’s ever lost a race because of raising the debt limit,” Yarmuth said.

Dual-track approach

Yarmuth said he’s suggested a dual-track approach where Democrats begin the reconciliation process for increasing the debt limit, if it becomes necessary, while also preparing a measure that can be advanced under regular order if Republicans decide to be cooperative. 

Among the options he said should be considered for the regular-order track are a measure from Rep. Brendan F. Boyle, D-Pa., to give the Treasury secretary the authority to lift the debt limit but which Congress could override with a resolution of disapproval.

Hoyer confirmed he thinks the dual-track approach is prudent, even though he hopes Republicans would help extend the debt limit like Democrats did three times during the Trump administration when Republicans controlled the Senate. 

“McConnell says to breach the full faith and credit of the United States would be a terrible mistake. Then he ought to act that way,” Hoyer said.

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