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GOP balks at White House push for standalone vote on debt ceiling

Republican lawmakers are pushing back on a new White House plan that calls for a vote on raising the debt ceiling before August and then revisiting spending talks in the fall.

GOP senators say there’s little desire in their conference to vote on a standalone proposal to increase the nation’s debt limit, something that’s broadly unpopular with the base.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate mulls changes to .9 trillion coronavirus bill Biden brings back bipartisan meetings at the White House Politics, not racism or sexism, explain opposition to Biden Cabinet nominees MORE (R-Texas), an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump shows he holds stranglehold on GOP, media in CPAC barnburner Trump rules out starting a new party: 'Fake news' Sunday shows - Trump's reemergence, COVID-19 vaccines and variants dominate MORE (R-Ky.), said Republican leaders would have a tough time passing such a measure if it’s not attached to a broader spending deal.

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“It’s going to be very hard,” he said of passing a standalone debt limit increase. “I don’t know where the 60 votes would be to get it done, just by itself.”

Democratic leaders have said for months they want to move a debt limit agreement and a spending deal in the same package.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump shows he holds stranglehold on GOP, media in CPAC barnburner Biden brings back bipartisan meetings at the White House McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 MORE (D-Calif.) said Thursday night that Congress should act on a budget caps deal to raise the debt limit before lawmakers leave town for the August recess.

"I am personally convinced that we should act on the caps and the debt ceiling,” Pelosi told reporters, “prior to recess.”

For a brief time, White House negotiators agreed the two issues should be coupled, but they have since started to change their minds as a deal with Democrats on the top-line spending numbers has proved elusive.

They are now worried that a spending deal with Pelosi will add more than $300 billion to the deficit over the next two years and damage Trump’s reputation as a fiscal conservative with Republican voters.

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By separating the debt limit from the spending talks, White House negotiators believe they will have more leverage to press Democrats to accept a smaller spending increase for domestic programs.

But congressional Republicans are warning the White House that a vote on just the debt limit would invite trouble.

“They may not appreciate the pragmatic concerns,” Cornyn said.

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntPartisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission Passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy Microsoft, FireEye push for breach reporting rules after SolarWinds hack MORE (Mo.), the Senate Republican Policy Committee chairman, said Thursday afternoon it would be better to vote on a comprehensive package and avoid a vote on the debt limit alone.

One GOP senator who faces a potentially competitive race next year expressed concern that without a spending deal that raises the debt limit beyond the 2020 elections, Democrats will force Republicans to take several votes to raise the debt limit incrementally between now and Election Day.

“The Democrats are going to force us either to accept much higher spending levels or to vote on several debt-limit increases,” the lawmaker said, requesting anonymity to discuss political strategy. “Debt-limit votes are hard for us.”

The lawmaker warned that Democrats would love to have another standoff over the debt limit right before Election Day in order to rattle the financial markets and hurt GOP candidates. 

Some Senate Republicans are already warning they will vote against increasing the debt limit, even if it is paired with a spending deal. 

“When it comes to the debt limit, I’ll be one of those that probably will be voting against raising it,” said Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Senate ref axes minimum wage, House votes today on relief bill Biden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers Senate GOP ready to turn page on Trump MORE (R-Ind.), a newly elected freshman.

Failing to raise the debt ceiling would roil global financial markets and threaten recent economic gains.

A bill combining the debt limit increase with an eventual agreement on top-line spending numbers would be more palatable to lawmakers because it would let the appropriations process move forward and lessen the chance of another government shutdown.

McConnell and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyBlack Caucus members lobby Biden to tap Shalanda Young for OMB head On The Money: Senate panels postpone Tanden meetings in negative sign | Biden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers Passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy MORE (R-Ala.) have stated consistently throughout the spring that they want to reach a two-year deal to put the appropriations process on stable footing and raise the debt limit beyond next year’s elections. 

Shelby on Thursday said that is still his and McConnell’s preference.

“[If] you got two together, you can create critical mass,” he said. “I would do them together if I could.”

Shelby said he agrees that voting on several standalone debt-limit increases isn’t as smart politically as voting on the controversial issue just once and as part of a broader spending deal.

“I agree with that. I think we ought to go ahead and pay our debts, pay our bills — make sure that our credit is respected in the world markets and also try to get a number of certainty to appropriations issues,” he said. “If you can do both together, you can create critical mass.”

The White House in April first floated the idea of moving the debt limit separately from a deal setting top-line spending numbers for defense and nondefense programs. Administration officials later backed down after getting pushback from Congress.

But now Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinBiden brings back bipartisan meetings at the White House On The Money: Schumer urges Democrats to stick together on .9T bill | Collins rules out GOP support for Biden relief plan | Powell fights inflation fears Mnuchin expected to launch investment fund seeking backing from Persian Gulf region: report MORE is putting the standalone debt-limit increase idea back on the table because of an impasse between the White House and Pelosi on the spending figures. 

Mnuchin told reporters Wednesday after meeting with McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyTrump calls on Republicans to 'get rid' of Cheney, other GOP critics Trump seeks to cement hold on GOP McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 MORE (R-Calif.) that Congress may need to pass the debt-limit increase before the August recess, even without a spending deal. 

He said he discussed with GOP leaders “potentially the need to do something before everybody leaves.”

The Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, on Monday warned that the federal government could hit the limit on its borrowing authority in early September, sooner than projected just a few months ago.

That puts pressure on Congress to vote on debt-limit legislation before leaving for the August recess early next month.

Democrats are questioning whether the debt limit will really expire in early September or whether the Trump administration is increasing the pressure to divorce the debt-limit and spending deal votes as a way to decrease Democratic leverage. 

“There’s no reason why we can’t do it all,” said Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), the vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Why don’t we just sit down, pass the appropriations bills, pass the debt limit or do them all? Everybody seems afraid to vote around here.”

Asked if he believed the White House’s warning that the debt limit will expire in early September instead of in October or November, as previously projected, Leahy said, “I cannot imagine the Trump administration ever saying something that wasn’t totally accurate and nonpolitical,” his voice heavy with sarcasm.