Lew urges Senate Dems to hold firm on debt limit

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew huddled with Senate Democrats at lunch on Thursday, telling them not to negotiate with Republicans on the debt ceiling.

Lew reminded lawmakers that the nation’s ability to borrow officially ends Feb. 7 and that while the Treasury was able to buy months of time in the past, its toolbox of “extraordinary measures” will last less than a month this time around. Lew has said the government could miss a payment by the end of February.

“He was just confirming that we need to pass a debt ceiling in February. He said he have to pay our bills and you don’t negotiate over that,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said.

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House Republicans are this week discussing their approach to the debt ceiling at a private retreat in rural Maryland. Members are eyeing attaching any number of provisions to a debt-limit boost, including approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline to regulatory relief to welfare cuts.

However, after coming out on the losing end of the government shutdown fight, GOP leaders are not signaling they will be pushing for major spending cuts as they have in the past.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said leaders are still trying to determine whether they will move a clean debt ceiling bill first or allow the House to act.

The Senate in the past has initiated the process of increasing the debt limit. But with the narrow timeframe, some members expressed concern that Republicans could gum up the process by arguing such a bill would have to start in the House, citing the portion of the Constitution that requires bills involving revenue to originate in the House.

“We think it’s pretty clear the Senate could bring up a bill, but we don’t want to make that controversial, and this should be a no-brainer,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “At this point, we’re waiting on the House to act.”

Lew underlined to Democrats the need to hold firm against accepting any policy provisions attached to the debt limit, no matter how small.

“They [Republicans] might just want some little thing, but once you do that then it’s open for next time, and the debt ceiling should not be a bargaining chip,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Harkin also said Democrats could highlight a logical discrepancy facing Republicans on the debt limit. Earlier this month, Congress passed a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, and Harkin thinks Republicans will have a hard time arguing against agreeing to borrow to pay for it.

“That puts Republicans in a bad position,” he said. “I went to the restaurant. I ordered the dinner. The bill came, and I said I don’t want to pay for it.”

Democrats remain adamant that the debt limit is not up for debate, especially now that the economy is back on the right road.

“The economy is starting to improve and the reason that we need to have the debt ceiling lifted — we just had a budget agreement, we had appropriations, we determined where our spending is going to be, we have to pay the bills for that. Why would anybody throw a black cloud on our economy right now when we are just getting back on our feet?” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said. 

— This story was updated at 3:38 p.m.