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The messy, drawn-out battle over electing the next Speaker is raising the danger of a debt limit crisis later this year, lawmakers in both parties warn.
Conservative rebels in the House are demanding that the next Speaker, whether it’s Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) or someone else, make a stand against passing a clean debt limit increase, which would set up a major fight with Senate Democrats and President Biden.
Congress has successfully avoided a debt limit crisis since 2011, which was also the first year of a new House GOP majority.
That year, the standoff between the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House brought the federal government within days of defaulting on its debt obligations.
Lawmakers say the nasty battle over electing a new Speaker portends another potential crisis later this year. The Treasury Department won’t say when exactly the debt limit will expire, but the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates it will need to be raised sometime after July.
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Conservative rebels who blocked McCarthy’s election as Speaker on six consecutive ballots say the Speaker must insist on using the debt limit as leverage to enact major spending reforms — something that Senate Democrats have dismissed as a non-starter over the past decade.
“Us 20 want changes, and we’re going to stay here until we get it,” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) told reporters Wednesday. “Could McCarthy all of a sudden morph into a fiscal conservative? We’ll see.”
“Is he willing to shut the government down rather than raise the debt ceiling? That’s a non-negotiable item,” he added.
A group of seven conservatives opposed to McCarthy’s bid to become Speaker circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter last month demanding that the next Speaker “commit to not raising the debt ceiling without a concrete plan to cap spending and operate under a budget that balances in 10 years.”
Senate Republicans, however, warn that debt ceiling legislation with spending caps isn’t going to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate, setting up the two chambers for a stalemate that could put the nation’s credit rating at risk or the federal government on the verge of default.
“That’s not going to get 60 votes. That’s math,” said a Senate GOP aide, who predicted that “it’s going to be a challenge” to pass legislation to raise the debt limit later this year.
McCarthy said in October that he would be willing to use the debt limit legislation as leverage to force spending cuts, but conservatives have doubts about how hard he would push it when the stakes are high and default is a real possibility.
But the bruising battle over electing a Speaker, which has played out over two days, has lawmakers in both parties worried that whoever winds up leading the House Republican majority this year will have a hard time passing debt limit legislation or regular spending bills given the staunch opposition of a small group of conservatives and the party’s slim five-seat majority.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to the Senate GOP leadership team, said raising the debt limit, which is expected to expire this summer, “will probably be the single biggest challenge the House will have.”
Asked about the prospect of passing a debt limit bill that caps spending or balances the budget in 10 years, Cornyn replied, “Could you get 60 votes in the Senate for that?”
“We’ll see how the story ends. I don’t know,” he added.
Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) suggested the messy and protracted battle over electing Speaker doesn’t bode well for getting must-pass legislation done later this year.
“You’re looking at a preview of coming attractions,” he quipped.
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, predicted that passing debt limit and spending legislation will be a heavy lift this year and said the possible outcome is hard to predict while the Speaker’s race remained in limbo.
“It’s impossible to know at this point. It’s always hard,” he said, predicting the debt limit “will be” a big fight this year.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said clean debt limit legislation won’t fly with conservatives this year — even though congressional leaders haven’t used it as a vehicle to pass fiscal reforms since Congress passed the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) as a way to end that year’s debt limit crisis.
“Who says it’s clean? That’s their point. They don’t want clean. They want constructive things like we’ve done in the past,” he said, referring to the BCA, which imposed caps on discretionary spending and established sequestration, the automatic reduction of certain mandatory spending programs.
A Senate Democratic aide on Tuesday called the BCA “the worst piece of legislation passed” in recent memory, signaling that Senate Democrats have no appetite for agreeing to a major spending cut in a deal to raise the debt limit.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) floated the idea of raising the debt limit in last year’s lame-duck session while Democrats still controlled the House, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) shot down the idea.
Now Democrats warn Congress could be headed for a fiscal disaster later this year.
“It’s very troubling,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) of the chances of a debt limit crisis later this year.
“We put at risk the economic future not only of our country but the world,” he said.
Doggett said whether McCarthy is elected as a weak Speaker or someone else steps in to fill the top leadership job, it’s likely “we’re going to have brinkmanship on [the debt limit] or shutting down the government.”
Doggett said that “there certainly is that danger” that 2023 could turn into a reprise of 2011, when the deadlock over raising the debt limit dragged on for months and took the country so close to default that Standard and Poor’s downgraded the nation’s credit rating.
McCarthy met with a group of his conservative opponents Wednesday evening in a last-ditch effort to persuade them to flip their votes, but he will have to make a strong commitment on using the debt limit to play hardball with the Senate to reduce the deficit if he is to sway them.
“Obviously spending is a very important issue, especially to conservatives like me, and that has been part of our conversations,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a Donald Trump-allied conservative who is supporting McCarthy’s bid to become Speaker.
Mychael Schnell and Al Weaver contributed.