Senate leaders have no plans to move their own debt ceiling bill this week and will instead wait for House Republicans to act and prove they have the votes to increase the government’s borrowing limit amid the continuing uncertainty over who will replace Speaker John Boehner in the coming weeks.
On Tuesday, Senate Republicans made clear they are prepared to handle a debt limit increase but are wary of holding any politically uncomfortable votes until it’s clear a bill can get through Congress.
“I think that’s kind of why… we want to see them take the lead on this,” Republican Conference Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said of House Republicans. “They have to figure out how to assemble the necessary 218 votes to move it and whatever they send over we’ll act on.”
House Republicans have been distracted by the breakdown in the race to succeed Boehner (R-Ohio), who plans to step down at the end of the month, and have no clear plan for increasing the debt limit despite the looming Nov. 3 deadline. The same bloc of conservatives that forced Boehner’s ouster have repeatedly threatened to block the must-pass legislation if debt limit increases are not paired with deep spending cuts.
Democrats and the White House have said repeatedly that President Obama will accept only a clean increase of the borrowing limit.
“It is nonnegotiable,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday. “It is a straight up or down vote on extending the debt of this country.”
Reid and the White House said they are willing to continue spending discussions related to a broader budget deal, but those talks must be separate from a debt limit bill.
“Progress has been made in other talks, staff-level, with the budgeting,” Reid said. “But until we get the debt ceiling done, I don’t think there’s going to be anything done of a serious nature.”
In recent days, some Senate Republicans have reluctantly signaled that they are willing to consider a clean bill in order to avoid a default but they are not willing to force a series of difficult votes if the House cannot pass an increase in the government’s borrowing limit.
“It would be better to know ahead of time what they can do,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn. “If we start something over here and then pass it and they can’t pass it it’s going to be an exercise in futility.”
A vote on a clean bill would require at least a dozen Senate Republicans to abandon their call for spending cuts to offset a debt limit increase and join Democrats in voting to raise the debt ceiling.
It also takes time.
Thune told reporters after a weekly closed-door party luncheon that it could take as long as week to move a debt limit increase in the Senate. The process would include several procedural votes, each requiring at least 60 votes, and several days of debate.
The only way to speed up the process would be for all 100 Senators to agree to bypass some procedural votes. Unanimous agreement is unlikely because several conservatives, including presidential candidates Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), are expected to oppose the bill.
That leaves the Senate waiting for the House to figure out a path forward.
“We’re going to wait and see how the House deals with that issue and we’ll respond accordingly,” McConnell said Tuesday.
The issue could come up Tuesday night when House Republicans meet to discuss the agenda for the next two weeks, but the majority of the meeting is expected to center on whether House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) will run to replace Boehner as speaker. Several aides said they expect the debt limit could be added to the schedule later in the week after the Ryan question has been settled.
For now, the House is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a bill that would require the government to “prioritize” payments if the debt ceiling is not raised by using tax revenue coming in to first pay interest on government debt and Social Security benefits.
Supporters of the contingency plan argue the bill would partially avoid default. Critics, including Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, argue it is impossible to pay some debts and not others and the Senate is not expected to take up the legislation.
Lew met Tuesday with members of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee to discuss plans for the debt limit but no decisions were reached.
The House will also vote later this week on a budget reconciliation bill that has become a priority for conservatives. Reconciliation bills are considered under special rules that require only a simple majority in both the House and the Senate to pass. Some Republicans want to attach language to defund both the Affordable Care Act and Planned Parenthood and take advantage of the special rules to force Obama to veto the package.