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GOP debt limit plans begin to take shape in House

Timing in flux as some lawmakers push for action this month, others say not to rush it

Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., co-chair of Main Street Caucus in her Rayburn Building office on March 22, 2023.
Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., co-chair of Main Street Caucus in her Rayburn Building office on March 22, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

​House Republicans are fleshing out the details of a bill that would lift the debt limit through May 2024, cap discretionary spending and include other party economic priorities. 

But as the conference begins to coalesce around the details of the legislation, there’s a debate brewing on how quickly the House needs to act. Some Republicans want to vote on a bill this month, while others are cautioning against setting self-imposed deadlines as they work through complex intraparty dynamics. 

The Treasury Department has estimated it could run out of cash to continue paying debt obligations as early as June, although other experts have said the “x date” could come as late as September. The deadline is for a final bill that can get through both chambers and be signed into law, but the GOP measure is just an opening bid in negotiations they’re trying to jumpstart. 

House Republicans have been unsuccessful so far in convincing President Joe Biden and top congressional Democrats, who are insisting on a clean debt limit increase, to even discuss their conditions. But Speaker Kevin McCarthy has said there’s no scenario in which Republicans will accept a clean debt limit bill.

The California Republican is expected to reiterate his party’s push to pair a debt limit increase with spending restraints in remarks at the New York Stock Exchange Monday morning. 

The bill GOP leaders are drafting is designed to show the types of spending cuts and “pro-growth” policies their party would accept in exchange for lifting the debt limit — as well as what they can get their members to support. Democrats have questioned whether Republicans, who have a narrow four-seat majority, can get 218 votes to pass anything. 

McCarthy said last month as the House departed for the two-week Easter and Passover recess that Republicans were “very close” to reaching internal agreement on debt limit legislation modeled after broad policy ideas he floated in a letter to Biden. 

Details emerging

Several sources familiar with the negotiations confirmed the bill that is being drafted would lift the debt limit through May 2024 and set a cap on discretionary spending for at least fiscal 2024 and potentially limit appropriations growth over the next decade to somewhere in the ballpark of 1 percent to 1.5 percent annually.

It would also rescind unobligated pandemic funding; block Biden’s student loan forgiveness executive actions; institute work requirements for some federal benefit programs; and include at least some provisions of the House-passed energy package. GOP lawmakers also want to include a measure requiring congressional authorization for major administration regulatory initiatives.

Repeal of energy tax provisions from last year’s budget reconciliation package are also in play. House Ways and Means is holding a hearing next week on that topic, which is getting renewed attention now that several independent analyses argue initial cost estimates could balloon due to high demand.

The details, first reported by Punchbowl News, are somewhat in flux as leaders work with various factions of the conference to determine what provisions will earn broad support. 

For example, GOP leaders have not settled on a specific discretionary spending cap and whether to set an overall limit for both defense and nondefense accounts or just a cap on the latter. 

One possibility that’s been discussed is capping nondefense discretionary spending at $584 billion, which would represent a 22 percent cut from fiscal 2023 enacted levels if veterans funding is included.

That could leave some room for at least a slim boost to military and related accounts while holding overall discretionary spending to the roughly $1.5 trillion fiscal 2022 topline conservatives have pushed. Biden has asked for a 4 percent defense increase, which some GOP hawks have said is too small.

If veterans’ discretionary funds are protected from cuts, reductions to all other nondefense accounts could creep closer to 30 percent.

Other cuts the GOP plans to include would come from mandatory spending, like the savings from imposing work requirements on certain benefit programs. Republicans are eying provisions to tighten work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that would make it harder for states to waive existing law.

That source also said the amount of pandemic aid Republicans expect to recapture could be in the $70 billion range, a figure which leaders of the Republican Main Street Caucus cited in a Thursday letter to McCarthy laying out their requests for a debt limit package. Main Street members had informally shared their requests with leaders weeks ago before the public letter.

While Republicans are not planning to touch Social Security or Medicare benefits as promised, Main Street members and others are pushing to include a provision setting up a bipartisan commission to come up with solutions to ensure the long-term solvency of those programs.

The Main Street letter from co-chairs Dusty Johnson of South Dakota and Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma said the commission should have six months to develop a plan that keeps Social Security and Medicare benefits off the table. However, they wrote that the proposal should “identify unnecessary spending related to” the two major benefit programs for seniors and “direct those savings toward strengthening those two programs.”

Legislation based on the commission’s findings would be privileged and receive a floor vote within 60 days.

Timing debate

With the details in flux so too is the timing of when the bill will be ready. 

Republican Study Committee Chairman Kevin Hern, R-Okla., sent a letter to colleagues Wednesday saying passing a debt limit bill should be the House’s top priority in April. 

“We must work night and day to get it passed to show the American people we can be trusted and force the Senate and White House to answer for their dereliction of duty,” Hern wrote.

But at least one RSC member is saying it’s not wise to set a specific timeline for action at this point. 

“I think we got to be careful not to begin to start setting false deadlines for ourself,” Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Wis., said Thursday on Fox Business. “There’s been very productive discussions within the Republican Conference. And we have to make sure that the speaker has the ability to be nimble and go in there and negotiate in good faith once — if — and when the White House steps up and starts to get serious about the whole issue.”

Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Wis., leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference at the Capitol Hill Club on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

McCarthy’s Twitter account shared the clip of Fitzgerald’s remark — a suggestion the speaker is not operating on a specific timetable. 

Fitzgerald said many GOP members have never been through a debt limit showdown before so there’s been a “learning curve,” but the conference is  “becoming more comfortable and familiar with … where we should be going.” 

Setting an “artificial deadline” isn’t helpful to getting Republicans to unify around a bill, he said. “Let’s let the speaker work through this internally, get members in a good place. And we’ll sit back and wait for the White House, because we have no other option at this point.”

It’s not yet clear whether GOP leaders would seek to bring a debt limit bill straight to the floor or go through one or more committees of jurisdiction first.

The House Ways and Means Committee has jurisdiction over the debt limit and some of the provisions being discussed, and Chairman Jason Smith, R-Mo., has been among the Republicans leading conference presentations on options for cutting spending in conjunction with the debt limit. But other provisions fall under other panels, so other committee leaders will want to weigh in, along with the various GOP ideological factions. 

Several of the ideas under consideration for the bill have been floated in plans from the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus and the more mainstream conservative groups, the RSC and the Republican Main Street Caucus. 

The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus has also been working on its own debt limit framework, which members said last month they expect to unveil soon after the House returns from recess. 

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