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House passes $1.5 trillion debt limit increase, spending cuts

President Joe Biden and top Senate Democrats say they won't negotiate, debt ceiling lift must be 'clean'

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., returns to his office after a vote on Wednesday.
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., returns to his office after a vote on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans narrowly passed legislation Wednesday pairing nearly $4.8 trillion in deficit reduction measures with a debt limit increase into next year — a move they argue should force Democrats to finally negotiate conditions for raising the nation’s borrowing limit.

The 222-member House GOP conference largely unified around the bill after weeks of tense negotiations, including last-minute changes leadership reluctantly agreed to include in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. 

Dozens of Republicans who supported the bill were casting their first ever votes for a debt limit increase.

“For the first time we have a bill serious about controlling the reckless spending that’s destroying America’s productivity and its prosperity,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who has opposed debt limit increases for 15 years, said on the floor.

Ultimately, four Republicans — Tennessee’s Tim Burchett, Florida’s Matt Gaetz, Colorado’s Ken Buck and Arizona’s Andy Biggs — voted against the bill, the maximum number of defections GOP leaders could afford. The 217-215 vote was otherwise along party lines. 

Burchett said the measure did not include enough “real deficit reduction.”

Biggs agreed, saying in a statement that the measure only lowers the projected gross national debt a decade from now from $52 trillion to $47 trillion. Gaetz cited a similar figure, saying in a statement that “gaslighting nearly $50 trillion in debt to America is something my conscious cannot abide at this time.”

Buck explained his vote was for the same reasons.

But a full-court press from Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other GOP leaders won over others who’d been leaning against the measure, such as Nancy Mace of South Carolina. 

Mace said after a Wednesday afternoon meeting with McCarthy that she’d back the bill after the speaker promised to work with her on future efforts to balance the federal budget, including a possible balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

Key components of the measure include:

  • Raising the debt limit by $1.5 trillion or extending it through March 2024, whichever comes first. 
  • Cutting and capping discretionary spending for the next decade, starting with a $1.47 trillion topline in fiscal 2024 and allowing for 1 percent annual growth over the following nine years. The first-year cap reflects a $131 billion cut from current funding levels, which spending wouldn’t catch up to until the end of the decade under the proposal.
  • Repealing most of the energy tax credit provisions from Democrats’ 2022 climate, tax and health law, with the exception of some biofuel provisions Midwestern Republicans pushed to protect. 
  • Rescinding unobligated IRS tax enforcement and climate-related grant funds from the 2022 law and unspent COVID-19 relief from various pandemic-era aid packages.
  • Canceling President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan. 
  • Expanding existing work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and instituting new rules for Medicaid beneficiaries.
  • Overhauling infrastructure permitting and other energy-related laws and regulations to spur more domestic production, primarily for fossil fuels.
  • Requiring congressional authorization for major administration regulatory initiatives.

‘No way’

Republicans said the measure reflects the shared priorities of various ideological factions in the conference and serves as their opening offer to President Joe Biden and Senate Democrats, who want a clean debt limit increase. 

“The whole purpose of this is to compel the president to negotiate — and to demonstrate to Washington, D.C., that Kevin McCarthy has the votes to raise the debt ceiling,” Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., said.

House Democrats all voted against the bill, arguing that Congress should raise the debt limit without conditions. They also slammed the spending cuts in the bill, saying they would have a massive impact on government programs Americans depend on, from health care and nutrition services to education and infrastructure. 

“There is no way Congress will agree to 10 years of destructive caps and the biggest single cut to nondefense programs in American history,” House Budget ranking member Brendan F. Boyle, D-Pa., said during debate.

Deadline pressure

The debt limit “x date” — when the Treasury Department is at risk of running out of cash and wiggle room under the borrowing cap to pay bondholders and other obligations — will hit as early as June. The exact timing will depend in large part on tax receipts the Treasury is still analyzing, but the department plans to release an updated forecast later this week or next.

The Senate is planning to ignore House Republicans’ bill but will be under pressure to either negotiate or act on an alternative plan. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer offered no indication Wednesday that the House vote would change his negotiating posture. 

“We think what Speaker McCarthy and the House have done is going to bring us closer to default, not further away from it,” the New York Democrat said. 

Senate Democrats have demanded a clean debt limit bill, but Schumer declined to say whether he planned to bring one to the floor. 

“Our plan has always been the same: to avoid default, pass a clean debt ceiling — no brinksmanship, no hostage-taking,” he said.   

Ways and Means Chairman Jason Smith said Schumer’s position isn’t tenable. 

“They have to get off that because he can’t even get his own Democrats to vote for it … and they’ve got to have 60 votes over there,” the Missouri Republican said. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his conference are backing McCarthy’s insistence on spending cuts for raising the debt limit. “Until [Biden] and the speaker of the House reach an agreement, we’ll be at a standoff,” McConnell said.

‘Not negotiable’

Biden has threatened to veto the GOP bill and continues to insist on a clean debt limit increase. 

The president has repeatedly said he would meet with McCarthy again only when House Republicans produce a budget. But on Wednesday ahead of the vote, the only condition Biden gave for meeting with the speaker is that raising the debt limit remains “not negotiable.” 

The White House had previously signaled Republicans’ debt limit bill wouldn’t suffice as a plan to kick-start spending negotiations but on Wednesday issued a statement on the measure that characterized it as a budget.

“House Republicans are selling out hard-working Americans in order to defend their top priority: restoring the Trump tax cuts for the wealthiest and corporations at a cost of over $3 trillion,” White House Communications Director Ben LaBolt said. “Budgets are a statement of values — and House Republicans have made clear who they are fighting for.”

Republicans do not extend any of the 2017 tax cuts in their debt limit bill and have not yet made that a request in negotiations, despite the White House repeatedly trying to make that connection.

It’s unclear if the White House intentionally referred to Republicans’ debt limit bill as a budget to allow Biden to open the door to negotiations or not, but some congressional Democrats are predicting he’ll ultimately get there. 

“I think he will sit down, probably,” Rep. Henry Cuellar said. However, the Texas Democrat said the Senate would “not necessarily” be pressured into doing anything, noting that “the Senate is the Senate.”

Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the former No. 2 House Democrat who stepped down from leadership at the beginning of the year, said negotiations are inevitable since the parties will need to compromise to avoid a crisis. 

“I’m sure there are going to be some negotiations because we don’t believe that default is an option either. Both sides agree on something,” he said. 

But if Republicans expect Democrats to cut a deal, they need to offer something that will appeal to their party, Hoyer said.

“We would want to have rational numbers,” he said, referring to discretionary spending levels. “And right now we’re not even close to rational numbers.” 

Paul M. Krawzak, Laura Weiss, David Lerman and Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.

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