Congress's top Democrats formally offered to support a GOP plan to pair relief funding for victims of Hurricane Harvey with an increase in the U.S. debt limit, providing that Republicans agree to a short-term increase in the borrowing limit that would allow for further negotiation in December.
"Democrats are prepared to offer our votes for the Harvey aid package, and a short term debt limit increase of three months," Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Wednesday.
"Given Republican difficulty in finding the votes for their plan, we believe this proposal offers a bipartisan path forward to ensure prompt delivery of Harvey aid as well as avoiding a default," the leaders stated.
Democrats generally view the debt limit as a chance to get leverage in upcoming budget and spending battles because Republicans traditionally have typically been unable to deliver enough votes to pass a borrowing increase on their own. Pelosi and Schumer are expected to discuss their debt limit request with Republican leadership Wednesday when they meet with President Trump at the White House.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) quickly dismissed the Democrats' request, calling it "a ridiculous idea."
"We've got all this devastation in Texas, we've got a hurricane coming toward Florida, and they want to play politics with the debt ceiling?" he said. "It could put in jeopardy the kind of hurricane response we need to have."
But several rank-and-file Republicans said they would be open to a short-term extension to allow Congress to negotiate the debt later this year. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) was among those who said the three-month extension proposed by Democrats would be a reasonable timeline to set up broader talks on budget and spending.
"A short term increase in the debt limit so they can handle this is a sensible thing in my view," Cole said. "Most people understand getting through his immediate crisis and we know we're going to be making a larger appropriations deal sometime after the first of October."
The House is scheduled to vote Wednesday on roughly $8 billion disaster aid for Harvey victims without the debt limit increase. The Senate is expected to add debt limit language when they begin consideration later this week but Republican leaders have not yet said how long they would like the extension to last.
Republican leaders are in a tough spot given conservative opposition to linking a debt-limit hike to a Harvey relief bill. But while the Democratic offer could make up for lost conservative votes, it would mean revisiting the debt-ceiling debate in just three months, an option some lawmakers want to avoid.
"No one wants to revisit this," said Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who also acknowledged that Senate Democrats have significant leverage to force concessions: "We going to have to do what we have to do."
Conservatives worry that the Democrats' request for a December debt limit deadline would mean that the next round of negotiations would coincide with an expected year-end spending talks. Democrats are already expected to have significant sway in those discussions because GOP leaders do not control enough votes in the Senate to pass a spending bill on their own.
Spending bills, like most other legislation, need 60 votes to pass in the Senate. Republicans control 52 seats, meaning that they will have to turn to Democrats to provide at least eight votes if they hope to avoid a government shutdown.
Democrats have already signaled that they plan to use that leverage to call for increased spending on domestic priorities, like education and low-income assistance, that Republicans have vowed to cut. Schumer and Pelosi have also said that they aim to block Trump from fulfilling his promise to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) was among those who warned against the pairing, citing the probability that it could lead to increased spending.
"Obviously getting a [continuing resolution] and the debt ceiling to not come due at the same time would be the most prudent fiscal decision we could make," Meadows told reporters.
The roughly 40 Freedom Caucus members in the House would not necessarily have the power to block legislation linking Harvey relief to a debt-ceiling hike. But if the group decides to vote against the bill, it could exacerbate tensions among House Republicans and raise the specter that the bill could pass without a majority of the majority party — violating an informal rule that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) had pledged to adhere to when he became speaker in 2015.
For Democrats, a three-month debt-limit hike would allow them to maintain pressure on Republicans in debates over government spending and protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, known as "dreamers."