GOP critic dials up pressure on McConnell: ‘Tired of caving’
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) says he is “tired of caving” on the debt limit and is dialing up the pressure on Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) not to swoop in to strike a last-minute deal with President Biden.
Scott’s full-court press on McConnell is an extension of their battle last year over the leadership of the Senate GOP conference, which McConnell won in a closed-door leadership election in November.
Scott tried to oust McConnell from the top Senate Republican leader’s spot after Republicans failed to win the Senate majority in November and helped lead the fight against passing the $1.7 trillion year-end omnibus spending package.
Scott said he’s not giving up his effort to cut federal spending and that he’s willing to clash with McConnell again over the debt limit, which has already expired, forcing the Treasury Department to use “extraordinary measures” to make payments.
“I’m not going to back down,” Scott told The Hill during an interview in his Capitol office after McConnell decided to remove the Florida senator from the powerful Commerce Committee, a move that conservatives viewed as fallout from the November leadership race, which Scott lost 37-10.
McConnell also removed Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who nominated Scott for Senate Republican leader in November and helped lead the fight against passing last year’s omnibus spending bill, from the Commerce panel.
Scott has been gearing up to battle McConnell over the debt limit since April of 2021, when he pushed to amend the Senate GOP conference rules to require that “any increase in the debt ceiling must be accompanied by cuts in federal spending of an equal or greater amount as the debt ceiling increase, or meaningful structural reform.”
Scott said McConnell then “caved” in the fall of 2021 when he worked out a deal with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to create a one-time procedural exception to allow debt-limit legislation to advance on the Senate floor without having to face a filibuster.
The Florida senator launched a nationwide television ad last month calling for change within the Republican Party and urging GOP lawmakers to “stop caving” to Democratic demands.
McConnell said in 2021 that he struck a deal with Schumer to let Democrats raise the debt ceiling with votes from their conference because he wanted them to take full responsibility for expanding borrowing authority — although 10 Republican votes were needed to create the procedural loophole.
“I took an amendment vote [in] April to the conference, we adopted it and then … the leader caved,” Scott told The Hill, noting that the Senate GOP conference had agreed unanimously that “we were going to cut cost or we were going to have structural change” in exchange for raising the debt limit.
Scott said he and other conservatives who signed a recent letter to President Biden stating “outright opposition to a debt-ceiling hike without real structural spending reform that reduces deficit spending” want to send a message to McConnell that they don’t want him to negotiate any deal that paves the way for Democrats to pass a clean debt-limit increase.
“You saw [in 2021] he came out and said in July that we would not participate in raising the debt ceiling and then … he organized 11 people to say we’ll allow the Democrats to do it on our own. We didn’t follow conference rules. I’m tired of caving,” Scott said.
Twenty-four Republican senators signed the letter to Biden declaring they will not vote for a debt-ceiling increase that doesn’t include structural reforms. McConnell did not sign the letter, nor did two other key members of his leadership team, Senate GOP Whip John Thune (S.D.) and Sen. John Cornyn (Texas).
McConnell later downplayed his lack of a signature. “I wouldn’t read too much into it. There are letters floating around in our conference all the time. Most of the time, I don’t sign them,” he said.
McConnell said he can’t imagine any debt-limit deal negotiated in the Senate could pass the House so he will leave it to Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to work out an agreement.
“We’re all behind Kevin and wishing him well in the negotiation,” he told reporters last week.
He also called for Democrats to agree to spending cuts, noting that Schumer used the debt-ceiling as “leverage” to negotiate a $320 billion discretionary spending increase under former President Trump.
McConnell’s allies say Scott’s leadership of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the last election cycle raised questions about his strategic decisionmaking. They argue that he burned up too much money prospecting for online donors and that his 12-point plan calling for bold reforms put GOP candidates on the defensive.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who voted for Scott’s leadership bid, is predicting that Biden and McCarthy will hit an impasse and the debt-limit negotiation will shift to the Senate, just like it did in 2011.
“I think [McConnell’s] position is, ‘Let’s see what the House can do that makes sense.’ But here’s the reality, the likelihood of the House being able to propose something seems to be questionable,” Graham said.
“Eventually Schumer’s going to bring up a bill to increase the debt ceiling, a clean debt-ceiling increase, and we’re going to have to vote on it” in the Senate, he added.
Graham said he wants McConnell and Schumer to be aware that there’s going to be strong pushback to passing a clean debt-ceiling increase if Biden fails to reach a deal with McCarthy.
“I’m hoping that our folks will start thinking about how to deal with what I think is the most likely scenario which is the House can’t get there with the president,” he said. “I’m not going to vote for a clean debt-ceiling increase. I want Mitch to know that. I want Schumer to know that. I think it would be impossible to get 60 [Senate] votes for a clean debt-ceiling increase.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who drafted the final language of the conference rule requiring spending reforms to be linked to debt-limit legislation, said his Senate colleagues need to stand firm against a clean debt-ceiling increase.
“I can tell you that is the position of the Republican conference as written in the rules of the Republican conference,” he said. “Unless someone affirmatively stakes out a different position, my assumption is that will be the position of Republicans. It certainly should be,” he said.
He pointed out that the debt limit was used as “leverage” in the past to enact two of the biggest fiscal reforms in decades: the 2011 Budget Control Act, which McConnell negotiated with then-Vice President Biden, and the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, which first enacted budget sequestration.
Cruz voted for Scott to replace McConnell as leader in the fall.
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