McConnell warns he won’t back debt-ceiling increase without ‘substantive’ reforms

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has signed onto a letter stating he and more than 40 members of the Senate GOP conference will not back “any bill that raises the debt ceiling without substantive spending and budget reforms,” according to sources.

The letter is addressed to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and would be McConnell’s clearest statement to date about what he is willing to support to avoid a national default next month when the federal government is projected to run out of money.

“The Senate Republican conference is united behind the House Republican conference in support of spending cuts and structural budget reform as a starting point for negotiations on the debt ceiling,” the letter states.  

“As such, we will not be voting for cloture on any bill that raises the debt ceiling without substantive spending and budget reforms,” it warns.

The letter is being led by conservative Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who wants to ensure that Republicans can sustain a filibuster of a clean bill to raise the debt ceiling, which is what Democrats are demanding.  

Lee announced Saturday afternoon that 43 GOP senators have signed on. 

“It is now clear that Senate Republicans aren’t going to bail out on Biden and Schumer, they have to negotiate. I thank my colleagues for joining my effort to emphasize this point in the clearest possible terms,” he said.

A source familiar with the effort said McConnell worked behind the scenes to gin up support for the letter. 

McConnell’s office declined to comment. 

The signatories include McConnell’s entire leadership team: Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.), Policy Committee Chairwoman Joni Ernst (Iowa), Conference Vice Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Steve Daines (Mont.). 

McConnell, who worked out a deal with Senate Democrats in 2021 to raise the debt limit, has previously said the current debt-limit negotiations should be handled entirely by President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

“In this situation, and I’ve been a through a few of these debt-ceiling dramas, there is no solution in the Senate. We have divided government,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “The American people gave the Republicans the House, the Democrats have the presidency.”

“The president and the Speaker need to reach an agreement to get us past this impasse,” he added.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to the Senate leadership, said last week: “The Senate’s going to sit this one out.” 

Now McConnell is throwing his weight behind House Republican demands that Biden and Democrats agree to significant fiscal reforms in exchange for raising the debt limit — something that Biden and Schumer have so far refused to discuss.  

The development comes ahead of a May 9 meeting at the White House where McConnell, Schumer, McCarthy and House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) are expected to begin their first serious discussion on how to avoid default.  

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned congressional leaders Monday that the country could soon exhaust the extraordinary measures her department has employed since January to stave off what many experts warn would be an economic catastrophe.  

She warned that “our best estimate is that we will be unable to continue to satisfy all of the government’s obligations by early June, and potentially as early as June 1, if Congress does not raise or suspend the debt limit before that time.” 

Biden in an interview with MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle that aired Friday night called McCarthy, the principal negotiator on a deal, “an honest man” but suggested the GOP leader would have a hard to selling a potential debt ceiling deal to his conservative caucus, especially after his protracted bid for Speaker. 

“There’s the Republican Party and there’s the MAGA Republicans, and the MAGA Republicans really have put him in a position where in order to stay Speaker he has to agree — he’s agreed to things that, maybe he believes, but are just extreme,” the president said in the interview for “The 11th Hour on MSNBC.” 

Biden also demurred on possibly invoking the “public debt” clause of the 14th Amendment, which has been floated by some legal scholars as overriding the nation’s congressionally approved borrowing limit, essentially compelling the government to continue to make payments. 

“I’ve not gotten there yet,” Biden said when asked about potentially invoking the amendment. 

The president said he is “prepared to negotiate in detail” with Republicans’ budget but declared “there’s no possibility they can pass their budget, zero.” 

The Senate Republican letter states “our economy is in free fall due to unsustainable fiscal policies” and declares “this trajectory must be addressed with fiscal reforms.” 

“Moreover, recent Treasury projections have reinforced the urgency of addressing the debt ceiling,” it reads. “The House has taken a responsible first step in coming to the table with their proposals. It is imperative that the president now do the same.”

The GOP-controlled House voted last week along party lines, 217 to 215, to pass a proposal to raise the debt limit by $1.5 trillion and curb spending by $4.8 trillion

Updated on May 6 at 6:18 p.m.

Tags Chuck Schumer debt ceiling Debt limit debt limit talks Janet Yellen Joe Biden Joe Biden John Cornyn Kevin McCarthy Kevin McCarthy Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Mitch McConnell Recession

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