After years of Republican demands that any increase in the federal government’s borrowing limit be paired with corresponding spending cuts, leaders in Congress appear to lack the votes to pass those cuts, even with total GOP control in Washington.
White House officials have called on Congress to forgo a political fight and increase the debt limit by the Sept. 29 deadline without attaching any controversial legislation. That decision means alienating conservatives who have demanded spending cuts, likely forcing leaders to turn to Democrats to deliver the votes necessary to avoid default. That option may be the safest way to avoid economic fallout from the United States’ failure to pay its bills. But it also risks angering conservatives who view the decision as an unacceptable violation of a core political promise to cut spending.
For months, conservatives have said that they are willing to negotiate modest spending cuts that could be considered alongside the inevitable debt-limit increase. But those talks never began in earnest. Instead, GOP lawmakers have been reluctant to identify any specific cuts they believe could get the support of a majority of Republicans.
Instead, many Republicans have speculated that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will work with Democrats on a package that could tie the debt limit to other bipartisan legislation, such as extending health-care coverage for low-income children. The idea has conservatives fuming.
“It’s sort of absurd to think that there are not more domestic discretionary cuts that couldn’t happen, but there isn’t the political will do to that,” said Dan Holler, vice president of the conservative group Heritage Action.
“It’s also the type of scenario where conservatives typically lose out,” Holler said. “Conservatives should not be on the losing end in such a traumatic way with a Republican president. I think it’s a real test of this Congress.”
Holler and other conservatives worry that the debt limit will be one of several conservative losses next month, when Congress faces a number of pressing deadlines, including the one Sept. 29 to fund the government and avoid a shutdown. Many Republicans privately admit that they expect GOP leaders will rely on Democrats to pass a spending bill, as well.
Republican leaders were forced to turn to Democrats to pass a $1.1 trillion spending deal to avert a government shutdown in May after conservatives refused to support it. At the time, leaders said they would spend the next several months developing a budget that would increase military spending, cut domestic costs and reduce the federal deficit. But none of those plans have been realized.
Instead, Congress was focused on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. Republicans viewed repealing the ACA as a critical first step in a dramatic overhaul of government spending by making permanent steps to rein in entitlement programs like Medicaid. But throughout the process Republicans struggled to back the plan, which would have gutted Medicaid and cut spending on a number of widely used health-care programs.
Ultimately, those fears are what killed the legislation, representing the clearest sign yet that some Republicans were not prepared to follow through on promises to cut spending.
Steve Bell, a former staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, said federal spending on domestic programs has been constrained for years and many of the remaining expenditures are on popular programs that even many conservatives don’t want to touch for fear of angering voters.
“The deficit hawks have been routed,” Bell said. “They will not touch Medicare, Medicaid nor Social Security despite recent warnings from the trustees, despite the absolute undeniable facts. As long as they shy away from that, all the rest of that is bluster and messaging.”
The White House has signaled that it doesn’t want to risk the possibility of another standoff when it comes to increasing the debt limit. Last month, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told members of the House Financial Services Committee that the White House would not push for spending cuts and would support a “clean” debt-limit increase.
“There should be very strict controls of spending money, but once we’ve agreed to spend the money, we should make sure that the government can pay for it,” Mnuchin said.
There had been concerns that Mnuchin might be at odds with other factions within the White House who were privately pushing President Trump to demand cuts and flirting with the idea of selectively paying off debts beyond September. Mnuchin dismissed that talk, saying his view represented the entire White House.
Congressional leaders have repeatedly vowed to address the debt limit soon after they return from August recess. In the House, members have 12 legislative days to pass the increase and nearly half a dozen other must-pass priorities like the spending bills — all deadlines Ryan has vowed to meet.
“House Republicans are discussing with the Senate and the administration, and we will act before the deadline,” said Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong.
Still, conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus say they want to work with Ryan on a plan to buck White House guidance and add modest spending cuts to a debt-limit vote.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and others have called on Ryan to cancel a planned mid-September break to stay in Washington and work out a plan for spending cuts. Jordan said the House has barely touched on the debt limit and members haven’t had a chance to see if a deal can be reached.
“I think there could be the votes there, but we haven’t explored that. We all went home,” Jordan said in an interview. “When you go home you don’t discuss it, but then say you don’t have the votes. You didn’t even try.”
That lack of effort has been a frustration for many conservatives who worry they will be alienated from the negotiations, despite promises that leaders would pursue a deeply conservative agenda this year. Rep. Thomas Garrett (R-Va.) said Republicans should be held accountable for promises they made while campaigning, including passing spending cuts, even when they’re difficult.
“We didn’t put a clean debt- limit increase in front of [President Barack] Obama. Why would we do it now?” Garrett said in an interview. “The ‘I-don’t-want-to-do-anything-unpopular’ disease affects both parties.”