Senate GOP takes backseat on debt talks, fueling anxiety

The negotiations between President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on raising the debt limit has put the Senate in the backseat, fueling anxiety among the upper chamber’s conservatives that the deal will be a major disappointment.  

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is threatening to use every procedural tool available to slow down the legislation, but the bill will move first through the House, giving Senate Republicans little chance to amend it once it arrives to them. 

Senate aides say conservatives who want to derail the bill can drag out its consideration in the Senate over six or seven days but warn that Lee will be under heavy pressure to cooperate with the nation facing a potential default as soon as June 5, the new “X-date” deadline when the government will run out of money, set Friday by Treasury Department Secretary Janet Yellen.   

“The real question for these guys is, ‘Who wants to be the lone senator or in a group of senators who forces us into a default over Senate procedure?’” said a Democratic aide. 

Yellen had earlier told congressional leaders that the federal government could default as soon as June 1, and the later deadline takes some bite out of Lee’s threat, as Biden and McCarthy now have a little more time to work.  

But Lee or other disgruntled Senate conservatives could still stretch the debate past the deadline if the House doesn’t pass a debt limit deal by Wednesday. 

House lawmakers left Washington for the long Memorial Day weekend but were told they should be prepared to return to the Capitol for a vote with 24 hours of notice. 

So far, no other Senate Republican has joined Lee in threatening to drag out the process.

“It’s really going to depend what the deal is,” said a Senate Republican aide. “We don’t have enough to know what we’re reacting to.”

Conservatives worry the deal won’t lead to meaningful spending cuts, and that requirements for various federal benefit programs won’t be tightened.

“If it’s basically a spending freeze and bare minimum work requirements and a budget gimmick that lets them move money around, then conservatives in the Senate are going to say, ‘What the hell?’” the GOP aide said.

McCarthy on Friday criticized some of the media for reporting about the emerging deal that doesn’t fully reflect the concessions he’s won from Biden.  

“Members don’t know what’s all in. You all report things that aren’t really true in the process, so people get concerned,” he told a group of reporters at the Capitol.  

Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) said Thursday he was “concerned about rumors” the agreement between McCarthy and Biden would raise the debt ceiling significantly in return for moderate reductions in spending.  

“If that were true, that would absolutely collapse the Republican majority for this debt ceiling increase,” he warned.  

Republican lawmakers reported seeing a draft plan to raise the debt limit by $4 trillion, which would give the Biden administration enough room to borrow without having to return to Congress until after the 2024 election.  

It would be a dramatically larger increase that the $1.5 trillion hike included in the Limit, Save, Grow Act, which the House passed in April but has no chance in the Democrat-controlled Senate.  

However, McCarthy is on the cusp of winning several major concessions, including rescinding $10 billion from the $80 billion in new funding for the Internal Revenue Service, approved by Congress last year in the Inflation Reduction Act.  

Republican negotiators also feel confident about securing bigger funding increases for defense and veterans’ programs compared to nondefense domestic programs, which would be slated for cuts. But nondefense programs may be supplemented by shifting funding around to cover the ostensible cuts, which has conservatives complaining about “budget gimmicks.”   

Democratic and Republican aides say the House would vote first on a debt limit deal. Any bill McCarthy brings to the floor would need to pass with the support of a majority of the House GOP conference, they say.  

If it passes with mostly Democratic votes and weak support from Republicans, it would be seen as a big victory for Biden.  

Furthermore, passing a bill with support from less than half of the House GOP conference would violate the unofficial Hastert Rule, which states that the Speaker should only bring a bill to the floor if it has support from the majority of the majority party. 

Aides in both parties predict Biden and McCarthy will be able to rally majorities from both the House Democratic and Republican conferences to vote for a deal, while liberals and conservatives from the edges of the political spectrum will vote no. 

That means that any debt limit legislation that reaches the Senate will come from the House with strong bipartisan support and a lot of political momentum, though Lee and his allies could slow it by refusing to waive the chamber’s time-consuming procedural requirements. 

But if the legislation has enough support to pass anyway — and delaying final passage could result in a downgrade of the nation’s credit worthiness or a technical default — Lee and others would come under enormous pressure to speed up the timeline.  

James Wallner, a Senate rules expert and former Senate GOP aide who once worked for Lee, noted that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) could speed up consideration of the bill by calling senators to the floor to vote at 1 a.m., cutting down the time between when he files a cloture motion to end debate and the vote on the motion.  

“There are two options here. One is to try to pull out all the stops and to try to undermine the bill and defeat it, drag it out. That’s one thing. The other thing is to have an amendment strategy and try to amend the bill,” he said, noting that the likely success of either strategy would depend on “how many conservatives in the House support the bill.”  

But Lee would need to reach out to liberal Senate Democrats to build up enough support to block a debt limit bill from proceeding through the Senate without amendments. This scenario is viewed as highly unlikely, since the deadline for avoiding default is June 5.  

Changing details of the deal in the Senate and sending it back to the House could cause a substantial delay.  

“If a big chunk of the Freedom Caucus supports the deal, it makes it that much harder for conservatives in the Senate,” said Wallner, who pointed out that Senate passage would then be “the last thing that has to happen.”  

“If it’s already gone that far, it’s going to mitigate a lot of [Senate] members who might otherwise be opposed,” he said. 

Tags Bob Good debt ceiling Janet Yellen Janet Yellen Joe Biden Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Kevin McCarthy Mike Lee Mike Lee Mitch McConnell

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