President, Dems split on strategy

Senate Democrats and President Obama have split over important strategic decisions in the battle to raise the debt ceiling.

Senate Democrats want to increase the nation’s borrowing authority for more than a year, taking Congress through the mid-term election.

Obama seemed to undercut them Tuesday afternoon when he said he could support a short-term legislation to fund government and raise the debt limit. 

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He also embraced attaching a mandated, bipartisan budget process to legislation that would increase the debt ceiling and open the government. That came hours after House Republicans offered legislation that would create a new debt panel, which was quickly panned by congressional Democrats.

At about the same time the president was holding his press conference, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced to colleagues his intention to move legislation to authorize more than a year’s worth of additional borrowing power.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday said he is not interested in a short-term deal. But the fact that Obama left the door open to something Reid doesn’t support suggests the White House and congressional Democrats are not completely on the same page.

Congressional Democrats are generally pleased that Reid has been calling the shots. They claim that Obama did not cut a good deal during the last debt-limit debate in 2011.

Now, Obama is front and center again. His press conference with reporters, which lasted more than an hour, was his first since the government shuttered last week.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) has criticized a short-term debt-limit increase as merely lurching to the next crisis.

“We’re not going to be in the situation where you’re lurching from crisis to crisis and putting the full faith and credit [of the government] at the hands of a Republican caucus that can’t get its act together,” a senior Senate Democratic aide told The Hill last month.

Another Democratic staffer, however, disagreed there is much daylight with the administration.

“They fully support our position,” the aide said.

While administration officials would prefer a longer-term debt-ceiling increase, the aide noted, Obama said Tuesday he would sign a short-term increase if one came to his desk without any noxious policy riders attached.  

Reid’s bill would push the debt limit to December 31, 2014.

Some Democrats also disagree with Obama’s decision to rule out using authority under the 14th Amendment to raise the debt limit unilaterally.

“I think he should keep that option open,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said.

“I’ve always been supportive the president should keep that as a tool,” Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said. “It’s pretty clear to me in the 14th Amendment that the president has an obligation to make sure our debts are paid.

“I know there’s disagreement, but I think the Constitution is pretty clear on that,” he added.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) has also pressed Obama to reserve the right to increase borrowing authority unilaterally.

“I think the 14th Amendment covers it. The president and I have a disagreement in that regard, I guess,” Pelosi told reporters last month. “I would never have taken that off the table.”

Obama reiterated on Tuesday that he doesn’t believe he has the power to raise the debt limit, adding that litigation about invoking the 14th Amendment would hamper the economy.

Meanwhile, Reid plans to move a clean bill to raise the debt limit and Democrats think they will have enough votes to overcome a Republican filibuster.

Two Senate Republicans, Sens. Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Thad Cochran (Miss.), have told reporters they could support clean legislation to raise the debt limit.

A GOP aide clarified that Kirk would support a short-term debt-limit increase to give congressional leaders more time to negotiate. But he would not support the Democratic effort to push the debt ceiling beyond the 2014 election without significant spending reform, the aide added. 

A handful of other Republicans remains undecided, including Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.).

“I’m going to listen today and make a decision when I hear what people say,” Alexander said.

“I don’t know. It depends where, when and how, and I don’t know that we have any of that signed at this point in time,” Murkowski said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on Fox News he will vote no, pointing out Reid’s measure won’t go anywhere in the House. McCain said he is huddling with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in an attempt to strike a deal.

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) declined to say whether he would make any effort to whip his colleagues to defeat Reid’s effort to pass a clean yearlong debt-limit extension.

“He’s not filed anything yet, so we’re not going to do it hypothetically,” Cornyn said of Reid’s plans.

Democrats feel confident that at least six Senate Republicans would prefer to advance a clean yearlong debt limit than risk being blamed for a federal default.

“It’ll be close,” Begich said. “I’m confident that even though we may have our differences, the sides are not going to let the government default. That would be economic suicide.”

Vulnerable incumbent Democrats facing reelection next year, including Begich, Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Mary Landrieu (La.) said Tuesday they would support clean legislation to raise the debt limit.

The only Democrat who wavered was Sen. Joe Manchin, the centrist from West Virginia, who said it would make sense to also discuss deficit reduction in connection to the debt limit.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third- ranking Senate Democratic leader, predicted his caucus would stay unified.

“I believe we’ll get just about every Democrat,” he said. “It’s going to get overwhelming how bad this is. A government shutdown is serious, but this is cataclysm, and people know that.”

Several Republicans said they would be more willing to vote for a short-term increase of the debt limit to give Congress more time to negotiate. But any extension lasting more than a few weeks must be paired with legislation to cut the deficit. 

“I’d do a short-term debt limit increase say for 30 or 45 days so we can come up with a bigger deal,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.  

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) also said he would support a clean short-term debt-limit increase.

He said he would support a long-term increase only if “something major is attached to it.”

“But I’m not committed to what that ought to be,” he added.

Pete Schroeder and Erik Wasson contributed.

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