Whipping the debt ceiling vote

By Dan Friedman

April 25, 2011

Congress is likely to raise the debt ceiling some time before the July 4th recess, but probably lacks the votes to do so in either chamber unless the vote is paired with a commitment to spending cuts.

National Journal compiled a "whip list" below detailing the stated position of senators on a vote to significantly raise the debt limit without any cuts attached, or on a "clean" vote. The list is based on interviews, statements, other press reports and statements by Senate Republican leaders on the collective views of GOP conference members. Lawmakers' descriptions of circumstances in which they would back an increase are noted. At least 50 senators, including several Democrats, have signaled they oppose a clean vote to raise the $14.3 billion statutory debt ceiling. That is enough to block it.

Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has repeatedly asserted no Republicans will back an increase without cuts. Most Republicans said that is indeed their position. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has also been explicit. "There will be no debt limit increase unless it is accompanied by meaningful spending cuts and budget reforms," Boehner said April 15.

Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., flatly oppose an increase without a major commitment to cuts. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., are undecided.

But most Senate Democrats said they would support a clean increase. Support is strong even among moderates and members likely to face stiff challenges in 2012. That is a sign the argument that Congress should not "play chicken" with the government's credit is exerting political influence. With the health of financial markets at issue, Democrats do not believe support for raising the debt ceiling is electorally untenable.

Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Herb Kohl, D-Wis., Bob Casey, D-Penn., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Tom Carper, D-Del., all up next year, said in interviews or through spokespeople that they would back a clean increase, though most want deficit talks too.

To allow passage of the measure, various groups of lawmakers are working on proposals to set future deficit reduction targets while leaving lawmakers to make specific cuts later. The proposals, intended for consideration alongside the debt increase, include varied automated mechanisms to enforce cuts if Congress does not act.

The most closely watched proposal may come from the bipartisan "Gang of Six" senators, who are expected to release a sweeping deficit reduction proposal based on recommendations last year by the heads of bipartisan fiscal commission. Two Senate Democratic aides said the gang's proposal will come in pieces. One would set long term spending targets and would be designed for consideration first alongside the debt limit vote, the aides said. President Obama signaled general support for a plan that caps spending in a speech last month.

"If you listen carefully, people are all saying the necessary thing, which is the right thing for the economy now is to put in place reforms that put these deficits on a downward path," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who has led the administration lobbying for an increase, said. The challenge is finding a plan that can win bipartisan support, Geithner noted. Such a plan would probably win backing from enough Republicans to allow Senate passage, but most would likely still vote against an increase.

The Treasury Department has said the debt ceiling will be reached around May 16, but Geithner has said the department has some accounting leeway to delay the impact until July.

Check out the full whip list, which we will be updating regularly, below:

Yes, or leaning yes, on a clean increase:

1. Senate Finance Committee Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. (4/6/11 interview)
2. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.: "He doesn't think playing around with the debt limit would reduce the deficit," spokesman Adam Bozzi said. (4/20/11)
3. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. "Sen. Bingaman plans to vote to raise it," spokeswoman Jude McCartin said. (4/20/11)
4. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. "The answer is unequivocally yes. We will raise the debt ceiling because the alternative, as every expert economist agrees, would be catastrophic for our economy." (4/24/11, Face The Nation, CBS).
5. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.: Boxer warned against a "failure to lift the debt ceiling" and the chance that "we start defaulting on our commitments." (2/17/11)
6. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, leaning yes. (4/12/11 remarks to reporters.)
7. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. "The Senator believes the debt ceiling must be raised to avoid U.S. defaulting on its loans," Cardin spokeswoman Susan Sullam said. (4/22/11)
8. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.: "He's planning on voting for an increase," spokeswoman Emily Spain said. (4/21/11 and 4/14/11 interview)
9. Sen. Robert Casey, D- Pa., Leaning yes. "He definitely wants cuts this year," Casey spokesman Larry Smar said "He also knows that the risk of default could have negative ramifications on the economy."
10. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. "To be brief, I don't think we should be holding the debt ceiling vote hostage to any specific number target or detailed proposal but I do think the gang of six will come back from the current recess period with a serious proposal one I hope a lot of us will be able to get behind." (MSNBC, 4/25/2011)
11. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill.: "If we don't extend the debt ceiling, we are going to find ourselves with interest rates going up, jobs being lost, and sinking back into a recession. That's an alternative we just can't accept." (4/10/11)
12. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. "We cannot default on our treasuries, on our debt. We just can't do that. The Treasury bill is the most secure investment in the world and must stay that way. If we default on our debt, it will be absolute disaster." (4/13/11)
13. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass: "Secretary Geithner and serious business leaders have been crystal clear that if Washington doesn't summon some adult behavior about the debt limit it could screw up the markets and threaten the recovery. We need a serious, adult debate, not political posturing and ideological gamesmanship." (4/19/11 statement to NJ.)
14. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis. "Sen. Kohl hasn't said what he plans to do in advance of proposals being finalized, but I think it's fair to say he's likely to support raising the debt ceiling," Kohl spokeswoman Lynn Becker said.
15. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., "I'm not gonna play chicken with the notion that the United States would welsh on a debt," McCaskill said. "I think that is wildly political and irresponsible." (4/12/11 interview)
16. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). "He thinks we need to increase the debt limit," spokesman Bryan Gulley said.
17. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "I think it would be fine if we just raised the debt ceiling, but I think it's even better if we raise the debt ceiling with some long-term goals to help our country meet its obligations to the world community." (4/12/11 news conference)
18. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.: Holding debt ceiling hostage "is playing with fire - because if the markets believe we are not going to pay our debt, it could be a formula for recession or worse." (4/10/11, Face the Nation, CBS.)
19. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., "We have to address the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling has to be raised." (4/14/11, interview)
20. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. "His position is that deficit reduction measures must be taken, but he would not seek to hold the debt ceiling hostage for other cuts," spokeswoman Marissa Padilla said. (4/22/11)
21. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., Warning against the "consequences of dealing or failing to raise the debt limit" Warner said "the idea that we would, in effect, roll the dice with the world economy by getting into this brinkmanship, I think, would be beyond the pale." (4/17/11, Face the Nation, CBS.)

Undecided, have not said or did not respond:

1. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii.
2. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.
3. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
4. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
5. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
6. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.
7. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.: "He has not yet announced," spokeswoman Kate Cyrul said.
8. Senate Appropriations Committee Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.
9. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.: Undecided. "I am giving a lot of thought to the debt reduction plan, so I want to see that first." (4/14/11 interview)
10. Senate Banking Committee Committee Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., "We don't have an answer at this time," spokeswoman Perry Plumart said.
11. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
12. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. (4/12/11 interview)
13. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
14. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. ("He has not said," spokeswoman Tara Andringa said. 4/22/11.)
15. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.: "No answer yet," spokeswoman Paola Amador said. (4/20/11)
16. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
17. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., "I'm not going to give you my economic analysis on my position on the debt limit," Mikulski said. (4/12/11)
18. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
19. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., Nelson said his position depends on what other debt reduction proposals the debt limit vote is paired with. (4/12/11 interview)
20. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.
21. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V.
22. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
23. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
24. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. (4/12/11 interview)
25. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.
26. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.
27. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.
28. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

No, without spending cuts:

1. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "I will not vote for another long-term extension of the debt for more than a year. I will vote for short-term extensions -- it would be catastrophic to renege on our debt. But we've got to have a long-term plan to deal with this." (4/24/11, Meet the Press)
2. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. "There's risk in voting against the increase in our debt ceiling, but I've concluded that the risk of not doing something to force us to cut our debt is actually riskier for our country." (4/14/11, Fox News interview, other reports)
3. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. "What I've told anyone who will listen to me in Washington, including my leadership, is that I'm not going to vote for that unless there is a real and meaningful commitment to debt reduction." (4/21/11)
4. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V. "I will vote against raising the debt ceiling, unless the vote is linked to a real budget plan that begins to fix our fiscal mess." (3/21/11 speech)
5. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. Alexander has said the debt ceiling vote "should be tied to debt reduction," spokesman Nick Simpson said (4/20/11)
6. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. "I cannot in good conscience raise our debt ceiling without Congress passing real and meaningful reforms to reduce spending. That plan should include a Balanced Budget Amendment, statutory spending caps, spending cuts, and entitlement reform." (4/6/11 floor speech)
7. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. "I will not vote to raise the debt ceiling unless some very specific steps are taken. It is time that we passed a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. ... It's also time for us to place actual, legal limits on what we do spend. A statutory limit on total government spending will force Washington to make the hard decisions each year to get us back on track. (4/13/11 floor speech)
8. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.: "I will not support any vote to increase our debt limit unless the President and Senate Democrat leaders agree to significant changes to reform our spending habits and put our financial future on firm footing." (4/17/11 op-ed)
9. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.: "Senator Boozman is not supportive of raising the debt ceiling without legislation to curb spending and rein in future deficits," spokeswoman Sara Lasure said. (4/21/11.)
10. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass.*
11. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.*
12. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind. Coats "would not support raising the debt ceiling without Congress and the President locking in serious plans to reduce the unsustainable national debt and put America back on a secure fiscal path," spokeswoman Tara DiJulio said. (4/20/11)
13. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R- Ga.* "While I don't believe Congress should allow a potentially catastrophic default by the federal government, I do believe that any increase in the debt ceiling must come with policy reforms and assurances that future spending and deficits are being addressed in a meaningful way." (Chambliss statement via spokeswoman Bronwyn LanceChester (4/21/11).
14. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.: "I need absolutely certainty that we've made the critical changes that are necessary to put this country back where it needs to go. And unless we do that, there's no way I support it." (4/17/11, Fox News Sunday.)
15. Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss.*
16. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.* Wants spending caps. (4/14/11)
17. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.: "I am absolutely not going to vote to raise the debt ceiling unless we dramatically change the character of our spending," Corker said. (4/17/11 speech)
18. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "I intend to vote against raising the debt ceiling unless we can get some systemic reforms - the kind the president's own fiscal commission recommended," (4/3/11, CNN's "State of the Union.")
19. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.*
20. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.: "Republicans must do everything they can to block an increase in the debt limit." (1/11/11)
21. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.*
22. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., No, unless Social Security reform bill is taken up. (4/12/11 news conference.)
23. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa: "We've got tremendous leverage by not increasing the debt to get a lot of things done that we want done -- tackling entitlements and tackling a constitutional amendment requiring a balance budget. I support moving in both of those areas." (4/5/11)
24. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.*
25. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. "The [debt ceiling] is the one where we have to see reforms before the debt ceiling is raised or we would be in danger or we would be in danger of having to face this again in another year or two. Which we cannot do." (4/8/2011)
26. Senate Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "He has consistently said we can't increase the debt ceiling without significant spending cuts," spokeswoman Julia Lawless said.
27. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.*
28. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.: "There must be a serious commitment to reduce spending before he could consider voting to raise the debt ceiling," Isakson Deputy Chief of Staff Joan Kirchner said.
29. Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.*
30. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. "The only way [Senate Democrats are] going to get support from the Republicans like me is if they establish those hard spending caps." (4/12/11)
31. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. "Senator Kirk will oppose an increase without significant discretionary cuts and statutory reforms. He believes that Congress should package several cuts/reforms with small increases to the debt ceiling." (4/22/11, Kirk spokeswoman Kate Dickens)
32. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. No. Kyl opposes raising debt ceiling baring some significant deficit cutting action, spokesman Ryan Patmintra said. (4/21/11).
33. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, "Senator Lee plans to vote no unless it is coupled with structural spending restraint, like a balanced budget amendment," spokeswoman Emily Bennion said. (4/22/11)
34. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.: (4/13/11, interview) "Senator Lugar wants to see significant spending cuts as part of a debt limit increase deal," senior advisor Mark Helmke said.
35. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.*
36. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "My view is -- and I hope this would be the view of every single Senate Republican -- is that in order to get my vote for raising the debt ceiling, we would need to do something significant about the debt, and let me define what I would view as significant: something that the markets would view as significant, something the American people would view as significant, something foreign countries would view as significant."
37. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kans.: "I will vote 'no' on your request to raise the debt ceiling." (3/23/11 letter to President Obama)
38. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska: "Unless the debt limit increase is accompanied by serious efforts to address our ballooning deficits, Sen. Murkowski would vote against a 'clean' increase," spokesman Mike Anderson said.
39. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., "I will vote to raise the debt ceiling if we pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution." (4/12/11 news conference.)
40. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. Portman would vote no without a significant commitment to deficit cuts, spokesman Jeff Sadosky said. (4/22/11)
41. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho. "Senator Risch wants to see significant deficit reductions occur," spokesman Brad Hoaglun said.
42. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kans.*
43. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.: " I will vote to defeat an increase in the debt limit unless it is the last one we ever authorize and is accompanied by a plan for fundamental tax reform, an overhaul of our regulatory structure, a cut to discretionary spending, a balanced-budget amendment, and reforms to save Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid." (3/30/11,op-ed)
44. Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.: "If this president thinks he can waltz in and say, "Take it or leave it if you don't give us a clean debt limit increase, we are going to blame you for shutting down the government or not paying our debt," I think he is sadly mistaken. (4/12/2011)
45. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.: "We need to push and we need to get some concessions on spending. If we don't this debt ceiling thing will come up a year from now and we'll move it up again." (Bloomberg Television interview 4/14/11)
46. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. "There has to be a reduction plan of some kind. If we raise the debt ceiling in a vacuum what message is that going to send to the bondholders about whether we are serious about grappling with the long-term debt?" (4/14/11)
47. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. "He has said all along that this is an opportunity for deficit reduction or budget reform," spokesman Kyle Downey said. (4/22/11)
48. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. "Unless we first adopt spending cuts and spending reforms, Sen. Toomey will vote against an increase in the debt limit, spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik said. (4/22/11)
49. Sen. David Vitter, R-La.: Vitter opposes increasing the debt ceiling without major spending cuts, spokesman Luke Bolar said. (4/22/11)
50. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.*

*Based on repeated assertions by Senate Republican leaders that the entire GOP conference would oppose increasing the debt ceiling without major spending cuts, all Republicans who did not respond inquiries or did not express a clear position are counted here as "no" votes. "A serious and credible path forward to reduce spending is the only thing, in my judgment, that will get Republican votes in the Senate to raise the debt ceiling," McConnell said in April 19 news release.

**Due to his pending resignation, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., will likely not vote on the debt increase and is not included on this list.

By Dan Friedman

April 25, 2011