The Trump administration is still divided over how to raise the debt ceiling, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said Thursday, as it rapidly approaches a point when the government will no longer be able to pay all of its bills.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin wants the debt ceiling to be increased with no strings attached, a “clean” vote that simply raises the government's borrowing limit without mandating spending cuts or other changes. Such a position is one often favored by Democrats and would likely get their votes.
Mulvaney is pushing for the debt ceiling vote to be combined with “fiscal reforms” that could include changes in the budget process that set in motion future spending cuts. This is an approach often favored by congressional Republicans.
“The treasury secretary is in charge of that discussion” about the debt ceiling, Mulvaney said at a breakfast meeting with reporters. “He’s in charge of driving that policy debate, but certainly the OMB director participates in that debate. It is not at all unusual for a treasury secretary to want a clean debt ceiling [increase]. It is not at all unusual for an OMB director from any party, or whatever his or her name is, to say, ‘Well, look this might be an opportunity to get some fiscal reforms.’ ”
The White House and Congress are running out of time to reach a consensus. Mulvaney and Mnuchin have said the government will only be able to pay its bills into sometime in September if Congress doesn’t act because there is a legal cap on government borrowing, and Congress is planning to take a lengthy recess in the month of August.
On Thursday, Mulvaney said top White House officials have had discussions about how they should approach the debt ceiling but they still haven’t reached a consensus, and it’s unclear if they will.
“It’s fair to say we haven’t settled on a final way to address the debt ceiling any more than the Hill has,” Mulvaney said. “The House [of Representatives] doesn’t know how they want to address the debt ceiling. The Senate doesn’t know how they want to address the debt ceiling. We’re not unusual there. All that we know at this point is that we’d like to see it addressed sooner rather than later.”
The government spends more money than it borrows, and the gap each year is known as the deficit. The government borrows money to cover that gap by issuing debt, but it can only issue debt up to a certain limit known as the debt ceiling. There are numerous ways to measure government debt, but one common measurement says the government now has almost $20 trillion in outstanding debt.
In 2015, President Barack Obama and Congress agreed to suspend the debt ceiling until mid-March 2017, but that date has now passed and the Treasury Department is taking emergency steps to delay falling behind on its payments. Those emergency steps are expected to run out in September.
Another key figure in the White House’s internal discussions on the matter is National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn. He has said the preference might be a debt ceiling increase with no strings attached but he has also said that this might not be politically possible, because many Republicans could object.
Mulvaney, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina who often opposed raising the debt ceiling, said the White House needed to better understand what lawmakers would be willing to do before deciding how to proceed on the debt ceiling. In 2011, the Obama administration and Republicans in Congress reached a last-minute agreement to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for future spending constraints.
The Obama administration after that refused to negotiate spending cuts in exchange for debt ceiling increases, but the exercise sent a signal to lawmakers that they could use the debt ceiling for leverage in extracting budget changes.
“It would be foolish for us to come up with a policy devoid of having talked to the Hill,” Mulvaney said. “Because we could sit there and have our policy and say we want A, B, C, and the Hill looks at us and says, 'We can’t pass that.' So what good is that? We’re talking with the House and Senate leaders on what they think they can pass.”
Raising the debt ceiling is a difficult political vote, but leaders from both parties have said it is necessary to ensure that the government pays its bills on time. If the debt ceiling isn’t raised by Congress, Treasury officials have said it could lead to a stock market crash, a surge in interest rates, and could threaten the full faith and credit of the United States government.
This is the first time the Trump administration has had to push for an increase in the debt ceiling, and top officials — Mnuchin, Mulvaney and Cohn — don’t have experience in the executive branch of government mobilizing support for the measure. That is one reason it is taking a long time for them to unify behind a specific approach, and they don’t have a timeline when they might reach an agreement.
“Will it be a clean debt ceiling vote?” Mulvaney said. “Will it be a debt ceiling vote with some type of reforms attached to it? I don’t think anybody has settled on that yet.”