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Debt limit deal clears key hurdle; more land mines await

Floor vote on rule is typically a party-line affair, but some in GOP may oppose

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., left, confers with Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., at the House Rules Committee meeting on Tuesday.
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., left, confers with Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., at the House Rules Committee meeting on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Bipartisan legislation to suspend the debt limit until after the 2024 elections cleared its first critical hurdle Tuesday night, when the House Rules Committee backed the terms for floor debate that is scheduled for Wednesday.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and President Joe Biden, who negotiated the package, appear likely to have the votes to pass the measure, despite rising anger from the GOP majority’s hard-right flank and some concerns on the left as well.

First, party leaders need to adopt the rule on the floor — a key test of how far conservative holdouts are willing to go to sink the bill. Since rule votes are typically along party lines, enough GOP defections could cause leadership to have to go back to the drawing board.

The Rules Committee has nine Republicans and four Democrats, but three of the GOP members are fiscal conservatives who could have derailed the entire process even before the rule hit the floor if they stuck together and voted against it in committee. One of the three, however, backed the rule during the panel’s meeting Tuesday.

“I anticipate voting for this rule,” Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said earlier in the Rules meeting. Massie won inclusion of his proposal to automatically cut current spending by 1 percent if full-year spending bills haven’t been enacted by Jan. 1, 2024; backers say that’s a major incentive for lawmakers to complete the appropriations process by then.

Defections from all three of the panel’s conservatives who won Rules seats earlier this year — Reps. Chip Roy of Texas and Ralph Norman of South Carolina are the other two — would have been enough to tank the Republican-backed rule in committee if all Democrats voted against it as would be typical.

Roy and Norman voted against the rule, which the committee approved on a 7-6 vote, with all Democrats opposed. Under the terms of the rule, no amendments to the bill would be allowed during floor debate.

The hard-right Freedom Caucus blasted the bill at a news conference Tuesday, saying it falls woefully short of the spending reductions needed to win their support.

“I had no idea that we would see a plan as ephemeral and as malodorous as this plan,” said Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Arizona, a Freedom Caucus member. Norman said simply: “The best deal is no deal.”

Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., later on Tuesday declined to say whether members of his group as a whole would vote against the rule when it reaches the floor.

Another Freedom Caucus member, Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., gave a strong hint she might vote against the rule on the floor. She said the fact the package doesn’t roll discretionary spending all the way back to fiscal 2022 levels as House Republicans demanded earlier this year is reason “in itself” to vote against the rule.

‘Most conservative deal’

McCarthy told reporters Tuesday he was confident he had enough Republican votes to help carry the bill.

“It’s the most conservative deal we ever had” despite a divided government, McCarthy said.

McCarthy has stressed that the caps would ensure the government spends less discretionary money next fiscal year than it spends this year, while clawing back an estimated $28 billion in unspent pandemic aid and ending a pandemic-era pause on student loan repayments. He also took credit for toughened work requirements for certain recipients of food stamps and a cash assistance program for low-income households.

The Congressional Budget Office released its official estimate of the bill late Tuesday, finding that it would cut deficits by at least $1.5 trillion over a decade.

That figure could rise to $2.1 trillion if future Congresses adhere to the measure’s proposed spending caps for fiscal years 2026 through 2029. But even that falls far short of the original House-passed package, which the CBO estimated would cut deficits by $4.8 trillion.

Conservative critics countered that the bill, combined with side deals, contained enough accounting gimmicks to ensure that spending would at best stay relatively flat.

Several other Republicans, apart from the Freedom Caucus, have also expressed their opposition. Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., told Fox News that the modest increase for defense wouldn’t keep pace with inflation.

“That’s cutting ships while you have a massive military buildup from China,” Waltz said. “We can’t do this on the backs of our troops.”

But the preliminary math suggested that supporters would have enough votes to push the measure to passage.

One high-profile Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., said Tuesday she was “getting there” on the package. Even as she referred to the package as a “shit sandwich,” Greene argued the alternative might be a clean debt limit increase that Democrats are able to jam through.

And while Republican votes alone would be insufficient in the narrowly divided House, given some GOP defections, the bill was likely to win support from a large swath of Democrats.

The leaders of the New Democrat Coalition, made up of about 100 self-described center-left members, announced its support for the bill Tuesday.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to step up and do the right thing,” New Democrat Chair Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., told MSNBC. “You know, you can either be part of the solution or part of the problem, and our members are choosing to be part of the solution.”

Norman said later on Tuesday that he believed Democrats would offset GOP defections on the rule during floor debate.

Referring to a GOP conference meeting on the bill, Norman said McCarthy was “ecstatic in there,” knowing he likely has the votes to send the measure to the Senate.

Senate gears up

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., formally endorsed the bill Tuesday and vowed to take it up in his chamber as soon as the House sends it to him.

“Senators must be prepared to act with urgency to send a final product to the president’s desk before the June 5 deadline,” Schumer said, referring to the date when Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen projects the government will be unable to pay its bills without new borrowing authority.

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., offered a strong endorsement of the bill, even as a few in his conference promised to fight it.

“We have a chance to start bringing Washington Democrats’ reckless spending to heel,” McConnell said on the floor Tuesday. “Let’s not pass up our shot.”

One of the Senate conservatives opposed to the bill says he will slow down the process in that chamber unless he receives a commitment to vote on his amendment to swap in his alternative debt ceiling bill.

“If we get no amendments, we’ll be here ’til next Tuesday,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said.

Paul’s amendment would substitute the House bill’s debt limit suspension to Jan. 1, 2025 — which could add up to $4 trillion in borrowing room — with a much slimmer $500 billion debt limit increase, forcing another debate later this year. His amendment would also cap spending at much lower levels.

Other Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have said they’ll demand amendment votes. Graham, a defense hawk, takes issue with the military spending levels.

Paul seemed cognizant he wouldn’t get the votes to adopt his amendment.

“I don’t think there are 50 votes. I think about half of the Republican caucus will support mine. No Democrats will support it. But the American people need to know that’s where we are,” Paul said. “We’re going to be $35 trillion in debt because both parties — look, Lindsey Graham‘s already said, ‘Oh, this doesn’t spend enough on the military. We need more for the military.’ That’s part of the problem. Big government Republicans and big government Democrats.”

Paul M. Krawzak and Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.

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