Senate leaders face pushback on tying debt fight to defense bill

Senate leadership is facing bipartisan pushback over one option floated for raising the country’s debt ceiling: tying it to a sweeping defense bill. 

The path has potential benefits. By tying a deeply partisan debt limit fight to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which typically passes with wide bipartisan support, leadership takes two items off of Congress’s packed year-end to-do list ahead of a Dec. 15 deadline for taking action on the borrowing limit.

But the idea is already setting off alarm bells on both sides of the Capitol.

Both House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who agree on little these days, are warning that a defense bill that includes a debt ceiling hike would struggle to clear their chamber. 

“We’ve told the Senate that. That’s the reality. Those are the numbers,” Hoyer said.

Hoyer confirmed the option has been discussed by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) but added, “We don’t think it’s the best option because we’re not sure we can do it. And we have to pass the debt limit.” 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declined to comment on the issue aside from vowing that Congress will “meet our deadlines.”

The House passed a defense bill, which did not include the debt ceiling, in September. At the time, 38 Democratic lawmakers voted against it, but the bill was able to pass because it garnered support from 135 Republicans and 181 Democrats.

The House is expected to vote on the NDAA again next week, according to a scheduling update from Hoyer, and “may also consider legislation to address the debt limit.” The update gave no indication of whether the two would be linked.

But McCarthy, who met with McConnell this week, signaled that Republicans wouldn’t put up the votes to pass the defense bill if the debt ceiling is included. And he said Democrats wouldn’t be able to round up the votes on their own. 

“I don’t think it would pass. Even in discussions with Democrat staff, they don’t think they could pass it,” he added. “I think it would fail. I really do.” 

The House previously voted to pass a short-term debt ceiling extension along party lines in a 219-206 vote.

In the Senate, 11 GOP senators helped advance the $480 billion hike as part of a deal offered by McConnell, though all Republicans voted against the debt hike during a final vote.

Senate Republicans have vowed that they won’t vote to help Democrats advance a debt extension again, urging their colleagues to handle it themselves by using a complex procedure known as budget reconciliation, which would allow them to bypass a 60-vote filibuster in the evenly split upper chamber. 

Republicans are offering to expedite that process down to a matter of days in an effort to defang Democratic criticism that they don’t have enough time to go through the cumbersome reconciliation process. 

The idea of tying a debt increase to the defense bill, which would require Republicans to vote again to advance a debt ceiling increase, is getting a lukewarm reception among the 11 Republicans who helped the Senate meet its procedural hurdles in October’s votes.

Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, said he would be open to voting for the defense bill with added language addressing the debt limit, “but I don’t know that it would pass.” 

“The problem with putting debt on the authorization bill is that our members want to vote for the … authorization bill, and most of them don’t want to vote for debt,” he said. 

Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and Richard Shelby (Ala.), two of the 11 Republicans who previously helped advance the debt ceiling bill, both indicated that they would likely oppose the defense bill if it included the debt ceiling. 

“I could not,” Cornyn said, asked if he could support an NDAA that included the debt fight. “We need to have some accountability for the debt, which means Democrats have to do it themselves.” 

Other Republicans who previously helped advance the debt ceiling bill declined to tip their hand, indicating that they would wait to see how the defense bill and the debt fight play out. 

“The NDAA is critical. … I would withhold my judgement based upon how much damage they do,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). 

He also appeared skeptical that Senate leadership would link the two issues, adding that he “would be surprised if they did.” 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) declined to speculate about how she would vote but said she thinks it’s critical that the NDAA gets “across the finish line this year.” She also said she has confidence that Schumer and McConnell “are going to figure out the path forward on the debt limit.”

The two Senate leaders have been tight-lipped about their discussions, with even their closest allies acknowledging that they are largely in the dark. 

Spokespeople for McConnell declined to comment on if linking the defense bill and the debt ceiling was under discussion, and McConnell, noting that senators were discussing “various options,” said that “nothing’s been decided yet.” 

Schumer also declined to say if it was on the table, telling The Hill, “I’m just saying we’re making good progress.”

There is no set date when the country will default on its debt. But experts have offered different timetables in recent weeks for how long Congress has to take action on the nation’s borrowing limit.

On Friday, the Bipartisan Policy Center predicted the nation could hit the “X date,” when it said the country would “no longer be able to meet its obligations in full and on time,” between Dec. 21 and Jan. 28.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has yet to change her position from last month, when she warned the nation could default on its debt around Dec. 15 if Congress failed to move quickly to raise or suspend the country’s borrowing limit.

The Treasury said it has been employing “extraordinary measures” since October, despite the debt limit hike passed by Congress.

At the time, Yellen called the short-term increase “only a temporary reprieve.” And she used a Senate hearing this week to warn lawmakers that it was “critical” for them to take action and that failing to do so would deal a catastrophic blow to the nation’s economy as it struggles to recover amid the ongoing pandemic. 

“America must pay its bills on time and in full,” she said. “If we do not, we will eviscerate our current recovery.” 

Tags Chuck Schumer debt ceiling Debt limit Defense bill Janet Yellen John Cornyn Kevin McCarthy Lisa Murkowski Mike Rounds Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi NDAA Richard Shelby Roy Blunt Steny Hoyer

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