Which Side Will Trump Take in the Next Debt-Ceiling Fight?

Vice President Mike Pence looks to Mick Mulvaney, Director of Office of Management and Budget in the White House complex in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, during a swearing in ceremony. Vice President Mike Pence looks to Mick Mulvaney, Director of Office of Management and Budget in the White House complex in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, during a swearing in ceremony. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans are gird­ing for a debt-ceil­ing fight later this year. The only prob­lem is they have no idea wheth­er they’ll be fight­ing with or against the White House.

Pres­id­ent Trump, un­like much of the rest of his party, has not seemed to pri­or­it­ize debt re­duc­tion. He has de­scribed him­self as the “King of Debt” in the busi­ness world, and in gov­ern­ment, Trump has a pro­posed a slate of costly policies, such as in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing, without yet ex­plain­ing how he would pay for them.

At the same time, Trump’s newly con­firmed budget dir­ect­or, former Rep. Mick Mul­vaney, made a ca­reer on call­ing for debt re­duc­tion, vot­ing along with con­gres­sion­al con­ser­vat­ives to try to ex­tract budget-cut­ting con­ces­sions from Pres­id­ent Obama as a pre­con­di­tion for rais­ing the debt ceil­ing—and even down­play­ing the risk of de­fault.

That leaves Re­pub­lic­ans with mixed mes­sages, and mostly in the dark about how the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will handle one of the most con­sequen­tial is­sues of the le­gis­lat­ive year. The White House did not provide com­ment on Trump’s po­s­i­tion by pub­lic­a­tion time.

Both Re­pub­lic­ans who want to raise the debt ceil­ing with no drama and those who want to use it to cut spend­ing see al­lies in the White House, but neither can be sure. On one thing they can agree: They’re re­lieved that last week the debt-ceil­ing dead­line was moved from early spring to late sum­mer.

Sen. Ted Cruz, who along with House con­ser­vat­ives ad­voc­ated us­ing the debt ceil­ing as a tool to en­act long-term spend­ing changes, said that in Mul­vaney, he sees a strong fisc­al con­ser­vat­ive who will rein in spend­ing.

“His­tor­ic­ally, the debt ceil­ing has proven one of the most ef­fect­ive levers for­cing Con­gress to ad­dress ser­i­ous solu­tions to the fisc­al crisis fa­cing this na­tion,” Cruz said. When asked wheth­er he would fa­vor adding con­di­tions to a debt-ceil­ing in­crease, he answered, “We need to be do­ing everything pos­sible to stop bank­rupt­ing this coun­try and mort­ga­ging the fu­tures of the next gen­er­a­tion.”

Oth­er mem­bers, however, think the ad­min­is­tra­tion will not risk a down­grade of the coun­try’s cred­it­wor­thi­ness.

“I’m con­fid­ent that Sec­ret­ary of the Treas­ury [Steven] Mnuchin be­lieves that a de­fault will be bad and they will do everything in their power to avoid that,” Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham said. “I’m ad­voc­at­ing for us not to de­fault. … It’s one of the dirty parts of be­ing a pub­lic of­fi­cial: You have to make de­cisions that are not pop­u­lar but need to be made.”

Still oth­er mem­bers are some­where in the middle. Sen. Ro­ger Wick­er said that while he ex­pects Mul­vaney to ap­proach the debt ceil­ing as a lever­age point, he also ex­pects that at the end of the day, the ad­min­is­tra­tion will have to raise the debt ceil­ing.

“I did have a very thor­ough con­ver­sa­tion with Rep­res­ent­at­ive Mul­vaney … and we did talk about that. Clearly he un­der­stands that the debt ceil­ing is go­ing to have to be raised as a mat­ter of simple arith­met­ic,” Wick­er said. “When it takes 10 years at least to bal­ance the budget, clearly there has to be a little debt for the nine years that get you there.”

Still, while heartened by Mul­vaney’s pres­ence in the ad­min­is­tra­tion, con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers of the House are privately anxious about how Trump him­self will view the debt ceil­ing. At a re­treat in Man­hat­tan last week, mem­bers of the House Free­dom Caucus and Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee kicked around ideas about what they could at­tach to a debt-ceil­ing in­crease.

“I’m not go­ing to in­crease this $20 tril­lion debt right now without look­ing at ways to do the things we said we were go­ing to do for the last six years,” Rep. Raul Lab­rador said.

Rep. Tom Cole said he hopes the ad­min­is­tra­tion will be open to en­ti­tle­ment re­form, though Trump him­self has said he does not want to change So­cial Se­cur­ity, Medi­care, and Medi­caid.

“I would like to see a plan that ad­dresses the long-term drivers of the debt,” Cole said. “That means you’ve got to deal with en­ti­tle­ments. There’s no way oth­er than to be open to some forms of re­form­ing our en­ti­tle­ment sys­tem.”

Mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, however, are wary of adding ex­traneous pro­vi­sions to the debt-ceil­ing in­crease, es­pe­cially be­cause it would have to pass the Sen­ate with 60 votes, mean­ing Demo­crats would have to help pass the meas­ure.

“If we load the House bill up with a bunch of pro­vi­sions that we know have no chance of go­ing through the Sen­ate, we’re just once again rais­ing ex­pect­a­tions un­real­ist­ic­ally only to have them dashed later,” Rep. Charlie Dent said. “The bot­tom line is we have to pass the debt ceil­ing and we have to do it with as little drama as pos­sible. Some folks who said they’d nev­er, ever, ever, ever vote for a debt-ceil­ing [in­crease], I hope that changes in the new Con­gress.”

If, in­deed, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and con­gres­sion­al lead­ers de­cide that a clean debt-ceil­ing in­crease is the way to go, they will likely have at least some help from Demo­crats. House Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er said that al­though Demo­crats have myri­ad dis­agree­ments with the ad­min­is­tra­tion on policy, a clean debt-ceil­ing boost would draw Demo­crat­ic votes.

“If they do that and it’s not com­prom­ised by polit­ic­al games­man­ship, then I think that they will have some sup­port,” Hoy­er said. “They’ll lose Re­pub­lic­ans who have said through the years they won’t vote for debt-lim­it ex­ten­sions on the the­ory that that’s what causes the debt.”

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