Conservative senators lay out debt plan

A group of conservative Senate Republicans are seeking to make their mark on the debt limit debate, unveiling legislation that includes a $2.4 trillion hike to that ceiling, but with several major conditions.

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSenate GOP to defeat proposal requiring approval for Iran attack Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need exit strategy with Iran | McConnell open to vote on Iran war authorization | Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales MORE (R-Utah) and 21 GOP senators unveiled legislation Thursday that would require Congress to implement several spending caps across government spending, including entitlements, as well as pass a balanced budget amendment before the debt limit could be increased.

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"It's a move we believe is absolutely necessary," said Lee.

He is joined on the bill by fellow freshmen like Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House Senate Health Committee advances bipartisan package to lower health costs Senate GOP to defeat proposal requiring approval for Iran attack MORE (R-Ky.), as well as more senior members, like Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsAttorney General Barr plays bagpipes at conference Roy Moore trails Republican field in Alabama Trump: Appointing Sessions was my biggest mistake MORE (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee. However, it has yet to attract any backing from Senate Republican leaders.

The bill effectively codifies the "Cut, Cap and Balance" pledge that had been signed by a handful of Republicans, including Lee. The one-page pledge calls for lawmakers to oppose any debt limit increase unless "substantial cuts in spending," spending caps, and a balanced budget amendment are approved by Congress first.

However, the legislation also attracted Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSenate GOP blocks election security bill Hillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns This week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request MORE (R-Mo.) as a co-sponsor, even though he did not sign the pledge.

Blunt said Thursday that he was not interested in signing a pledge that laid out what he would not do, but the measure was a different matter.

"This is a bill that says what I would do," he said, before adding that he would not sign off on a debt limit increase without a "significant structural change" to government spending.

Such a measure is unlikely to gain traction in a Senate still controlled by Democrats, but Lee maintained he would like to see a vote on the measure before Aug. 2, which is the deadline the Treasury Department has set for hiking the limit.

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But even if the measure does not become a reality, Lee made clear that he did not buy the fledgling argument that the president has the power under the Constitution to avoid the debt ceiling altogether. Such a notion has been gaining some steam among Democrats -- while being shot down by others -- and Lee was adamant it was not so.

Rather, the clause of the Constitution that supposedly gives Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner the power to issue debt regardless of the debt limit actually does something quite different based on Lee's reading: it forces him to prioritize funds to make debt service payments above other obligations if the debt limit is reached.

"The Treasury Secretary has to make sure those get paid first," he said.

For their part, the White House -- including President Obama -- have declined to even consider such a move in public, reiterating the emphasis on striking a deal with Congress before the deadline. But a Reuters report indicated that the Treasury has looked into the issue.

But that has not stopped Republicans from trying to head the issue off at the pass -- including introducing a resolution in the Senate that affirms that Congress must approve a debt limit increase and the President must sign it before issuing new debt.