The White House said on Thursday that it was uninterested in using the prospect of sending the country over a fiscal cliff as a negotiating tool. Much of Washington was relieved. Conservative lawmakers were piqued.
During the Obama presidency, congressional Republicans attempted to hold up an increase in the debt ceiling, which determines the Treasury Department’s borrowing limit, arguing it was a necessary mechanism to pursue deficit reduction.
But a Republican administration now occupies the White House. And that administration is calling for exactly what the Obama White House wanted: a clean, no-strings-attached increase of the debt ceiling, which is expected to be hit on September 29—roughly the same time that Congress also must pass a new budget.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said last week that he wanted Congress to raise the debt ceiling before leaving town for the August recess. With the House out of town this week and the Senate leaving Thursday for the rest of the month, that won’t happen. But on Thursday, Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, reiterated the Trump administration’s desire for a clean increase in the debt ceiling, presumably in the fall.
Despite those insistences, the administration will face vocal pushback from members when they return. And it will come from within their party. In the House, a group of approximately three dozen conservative hardliners that make up the Freedom Caucus will oppose any increase that doesn’t include spending cuts. And they have promised to put pressure on House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to side with them against the White House.
“There is no reason that when Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House that the debt ceiling should be lifted without putting in place measures to get a hold of our out-of-control spending and address our national debt,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, told The Daily Beast.
Added Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), another Freedom Caucus member, in an interview with The Daily Beast: “I can’t imagine that the speaker of the House is going to go along with this. When we raised the debt ceiling under Obama, there was always at least some modest [spending cuts]. Now that the Republicans control everything, we’re not going to insist upon something we couldn’t get with Democrats in the White House?”
The Freedom Caucus has impressed their position to the administration during private meetings. One caucus aide said Mnuchin pitched a clean debt ceiling increase to the group last month, during which members pushed back.
The caucus also has some boosters in the Senate. Speaking with reporters this week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said he and his allies would “use all the tools available” to pair an increase of the debt ceiling with new spending cuts. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), likewise, said that the “debt ceiling should be tied with some significant steps to try to curb the deficit and debt problem that we have.”
But without the president’s backing, the conservative factions of the House and the Senate have diminished leverage to push their position. Already, the Republican party is splintered on the matter. Toomey, for one, declined to speculate as to whether he would hold up government funding in the event that he doesn’t get sufficient spending cuts in return. Other lawmakers said it would be best to raise the debt ceiling without any attachments and move on to other pressing matters, such as tax reform.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said the debt ceiling is “a formality more than anything else,” and that it would be irresponsible for Congress to not do its job.
“We have to do it. We’ve got to pay our bills. And everybody knows it,” Hatch told The Daily Beast. “We’ve been through this routine over and over, and it never really works. But I’m happy to try again, hopefully get it done.”
Other Republican senators, while eager for spending cuts, acknowledged that this might not the right time for Congress to hold up an increase in the federal borrowing limit, given the other top-line agenda items on the Senate’s plate.
“Well, I’d like to see the spending cuts. I’d like to see us balance the budget,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) told The Daily Beast. “But I don’t know how we do it. It’s going to be hard.”