Two birds, one debt limit

Sen. John Cornyn Signs Off on Coupling Clean Debt Ceiling Hike and Hurricane Harvey Relief

The Senate GOP majority whip has set the stage for a high-stakes legislative showdown with the House.

The Senate’s second-ranking Republican said on Tuesday that he is willing to add a “clean” increase in the nation’s debt limit onto a disaster relief package for Hurricane Harvey victims.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), who hails from the state primarily ravaged by Harvey, signaled that he and others would add the debt ceiling provision to the hurricane-recovery bill that is likely to pass overwhelmingly as a standalone in the House on Wednesday.

“I do think it’s fine to put the debt ceiling onto it,” Cornyn told The Daily Beast on Capitol Hill Tuesday. Cornyn, a fiscal hawk who would usually prefer to have spending cuts attached to any increase in the debt ceiling, said the devastation left by the hurricane necessitates a clean, no-strings-attached debt hike.

“Unfortunately, I think that’s all we have time to do. I’m told that if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, then we can’t appropriate the additional funds for Harvey on an emergency basis which we absolutely need to do,” Cornyn said. “I continue to be worried about the debt, but I don’t think this is a time to have that debate.”

Cornyn’s statement is the surest indication to date that the Senate will opportunistically move a debt ceiling hike and dare House Republicans to block the bill when it comes back to their chamber. Such a move could effectively remove two must-do legislative items in one fell swoop. But the risks are high. It will meet fierce opposition from fiscal conservatives in the House who oppose a “clean” increase in the debt ceiling and could effectively kill both items altogether.

Moreover, a Senate Democratic leadership aide cautioned that the idea of pairing the debt ceiling and Harvey aid “doesn’t have buy-in at this point from Democrats, who are awaiting details," such as the length of the debt ceiling increase being proposed, "and the rest of the September to-do list.”

Congress has precious few days to act—just 12 legislative days in the month of September when both chambers are in session. The debt ceiling is set to hit on September 29. Lawmakers must authorize an increase in order to prevent a default and to allow the government to continue borrowing money.

The Trump administration has for weeks, if not months, searched for a legislative vehicle to which it could attach a clean debt ceiling increase. It attempted, first, to add it to a Veterans Affairs reform bill. But lawmakers rebuffed those efforts. The $7.85 billion aid package for hurricane victims is likely the last non-controversial piece of legislation to be considered before the deadline. And over the weekend, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made it clear that they wanted to couple those items.

But Mnuchin’s announcement and reports on Tuesday about the debt ceiling attachment received immediate pushback from conservative members of Congress, who have for years called for spending cuts to be tied to any increase in the debt ceiling.

“For many of us that are arriving today, coming from our different homes throughout the country, this is a little unsettling and even more frustrating.,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said Tuesday during an appearance on Fox News, suggesting it was a “backroom deal” between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (R-N.Y.).

“For Republicans, we have to be willing to hold the line when it comes to the out of control spending,” Walker added. “We’re grateful that in Texas the floodwaters continue to recede, but here in the swamp it looks like they continue to rise.”

Outside conservative groups, meanwhile, are incensed at the suggestion that any unrelated legislation be attached to a Harvey relief bill, and want Congress to offset any emergency aid package with spending cuts elsewhere.

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“Instead of reserving emergency funds for those in greatest need of assistance, opportunistic politicians are using this tragedy as a blank check to fund pet projects all over the country,” Club for Growth president David McIntosh said in a statement. “They are exploiting victims to hand out pork—it’s despicable.”

The statement from Cornyn, who previously had insisted on no clean debt ceiling hikes, signals that Senate Republican leaders are willing to buck these groups—as they have in the past—in order to get at least one tough vote off of their plate. But other tough votes remain, including a bill to fund the government.

Congressional aides had hinted on Tuesday morning that Senate GOP leadership would try to add a government-funding measure to the Harvey relief bill as well. Cornyn, however, said that would be unlikely because of time constraints, while predicting that Congress would eventually vote on a continuing resolution which would maintain current spending levels through the end of the year. Asked whether McConnell would consider all three items together—Harvey aid, a debt ceiling increase, and a government funding bill—David Popp, a spokesman for the senator, declined to offer any specifics.

“I’ll be sure to let you know if the Leader issues a statement on what the anonymous sources are saying,” Popp told The Daily Beast in an email.

It’s also unclear whether Cornyn and company will be able to smoothly move a clean debt ceiling hike on to the Harvey relief package before sending it through the Senate and back to the House. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), perhaps the Senate’s most strident fiscal hawk, told CNN that he would “do anything to try to stop” a debt ceiling hike from being added to disaster relief legislation.

Asked about Paul’s comment, Cornyn seemed undisturbed.  “Well,” said Cornyn, “he can filibuster and then we’ll have a vote.”