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Republicans urge tweaks to House debt limit bill ahead of vote

Freedom Caucus members push to stiffen food stamp work requirements; swing district members concerned about repealing energy tax credits

Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters in Statuary Hall in the Capitol after announcing his debt limit increase plan on the House floor on Wednesday.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters in Statuary Hall in the Capitol after announcing his debt limit increase plan on the House floor on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Republicans from both edges of the party are pushing for changes to a leadership-assembled debt limit bill, but Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his team appear hesitant to open it back up ahead of a planned vote next week.

While some members are signaling trepidation about their votes, McCarthy said Republicans are in “very good shape” to pass the legislation. 

“I want you to write stories like I’m teetering whether I could win or not and the whole world hangs in the balance,” the California Republican told reporters Thursday. “And then I want you to write a story after it passes, did the president sit down and negotiate?”

House Freedom Caucus members are pushing to toughen work requirements for food stamps, while some swing district members are concerned about repealing energy tax credits. 

The draft bill, set to be introduced by House Budget Chairman Jodey C. Arrington, R-Texas, would raise the current $31.4 trillion borrowing limit by $1.5 trillion or suspend it through March 31, 2024, reinstating the limit at whichever comes first.

The legislation would cap fiscal 2024 discretionary spending at $1.47 trillion, an 8 percent cut from comparable funding this year. It includes several other measures popular with Republicans, such as a House-passed energy bill, cancelation of President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program and repeal of IRS enforcement funds and expanded clean energy tax credits enacted in Democrats’ 2022 budget package.

McCarthy didn’t answer a question about whether he would allow changes to the bill, but his deputies signaled leadership would prefer not to reopen the carefully negotiated package.

“Talk to the speaker about that, but I think that they’ve closed it,” said House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, R-Minn. “We’re going to be voting on the bill. It’ll be coming to the floor.”

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., said leaders are still listening to member feedback now that the bill text is out, but “we’ve had a lot of negotiations over the last few months to get to this point.”

Asked if the rule for the bill would allow amendments, Scalise said, “Once you have a final package, the members are ready to vote.”

While the bill is unlikely to become law, passage would show unity among House Republicans, which McCarthy hopes would bring President Joe Biden to the negotiating table. 

Biden has been steadfast that he will not negotiate with McCarthy on raising the debt limit, a position that House and Senate Democrats widely support.

Not everyone in his party agrees with Biden’s no-negotiation stance. Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., praised McCarthy for putting forward a plan, even if he doesn’t agree with everything in it.

“While it is reasonable to sincerely disagree with any specific debt ceiling approach, we will achieve a historic default, and the economic whirlwind which follows, if President Biden continues to refuse to even negotiate a reasonable and commonsense compromise,” Manchin said in a statement Thursday.

Work requirements 

Conservatives want to increase a current Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program rule that able-bodied beneficiaries without dependents spend at least 20 hours a week working, looking for a job, in training or similar work-related activities to 30 hours per week.

Some also want to increase the age at which an exemption from work requirements kicks in: In current law that’s age 50, and the debt limit bill would raise that to 56. But prior versions set the exemption at age 65.

“I think we need to take the work requirements up to 30 hours a week and, frankly, the age limit ought to be higher,” said Rep. Bob Good, R-Va. “I think that’s a really important thing.” 

Roy and Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., also said they want to see the work requirements increased to 30 hours a week.

Good said he is undecided on the bill but is “trying to get to yes.” He said the measure is a “step in the right direction” although he wants to see more cuts tied to the next debt limit increase that would be needed next year.

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., said he’s leaning against the package because there aren’t enough cuts that would take effect in the first year and it wasn’t clear future savings would materialize.

Biden-district Republicans

Rep. Jen Kiggans, R-Va., who said she’s undecided on the bill, comes from a district that supported Biden by a 50-48 margin in 2020. 

Kiggans said she believes in an “all of the above” energy approach, which she said Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is also pursuing. But the GOP bill would repeal an expansion of tax credits for wind energy production that was in last year’s reconciliation package.

“I’ve been a supporter of wind energy in my district,” she said. “I want to encourage people to pursue alternative forms of energy production.”

Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., who despite ethical challenges has resisted calls to resign and therefore remains a key vote for McCarthy, also represents a district that voted for Biden. He said he’s opposed to repealing all of Democrats’ expanded energy tax credits.

“On one hand, you’re very liberal with work requirements for benefits,” he said. “On the other hand, you’re going to be punitive toward people who are hardworking Americans and clawing back money right out of their pockets.” 

Discretionary caps

The centerpiece of the measure’s fiscal restraints would reset discretionary spending for the upcoming budget year to levels appropriated for fiscal 2022, and then impose caps for an additional nine years allowing for 1 percent annual growth.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that provision could cut deficits by $3 trillion over the next decade when measured against the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline, which assumes this year’s $1.6 trillion appropriations package grows in line with inflation each year.

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said he wants to ensure that the new spending limits are enforceable, saying the 2011 law setting budget caps worked until Congress started ignoring the caps.

But he said the new bill’s structure, which avoids separating caps out into defense and nondefense category limits, is an improvement in that it imposes one unified budget ceiling under which lawmakers will have to make tough choices.

“If you get a topline cap to force a guns-and-butter fight, then we can maybe be responsible in how we’re spending,” Roy, a lead Freedom Caucus negotiator, said Thursday.

However, GOP appropriators vowed that defense spending would always be protected, regardless of the tight overall appropriations limits.

“We’re going to work through that in the appropriations process. We can work through it,” said Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala., a senior appropriator. “I’m OK with it as long as, at the end of the day, those of us who want to protect defense, we will do that.” 

House Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, herself a longtime defense hawk, has vowed not to cut Pentagon accounts in the spending bills she’s writing for fiscal 2024. Veterans and border security programs are also considered safe. 

But Democrats are trying to turn up the heat on Republicans for the likely impact on domestic and foreign aid programs. House Appropriations Democratic aides wrote in a memo on the GOP debt limit package that the first-year cuts to those programs would be higher than they appear — close to 30 percent if defense and veterans are protected.

Furthermore, even those stark numbers don’t account for economic and technical factors such as lower receipts for Department of Housing and Urban Development mortgage insurance programs. Because of the housing market downturn, HUD could bring in $9 billion less to offset new spending next year, the memo notes. Once higher rents due to inflation are factored in, appropriators would have to spend a total of $13 billion more just to maintain this year’s level of housing services, Democratic aides wrote.

And while the overall discretionary cap would grow over time to reach this year’s level again in 10 years, if defense is exempt from cuts then nondefense programs would still be held 15 percent lower than this year after a decade, the memo states.

“This is just to appease a group of people that got [McCarthy] the seat on the dais here,” House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said Thursday. “And [the cuts] are devastating.”  

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a close Biden ally, predicted policymakers would cut a deal to avert an economic calamity. But he said McCarthy’s push for negotiations would lead the economy on a “roller coaster” until the situation is resolved.

“In the end we must avoid default, and we will,” Coons said. “The only question is how much is it gonna hurt?” 

David Lerman contributed to this report.

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