House Speaker John Boehner (left) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Senate had been waiting for the House to act, but it now looks like the Senate may have to make the first move.

House Speaker John Boehner (left) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Senate had been waiting for the House to act, but it now looks like the Senate may have to make the first move. Alex Brandon/AP

The Debt-Limit First Move No One Wants to Make

House and Senate GOP leaders know they need to pass a clean debt-ceiling measure, but neither wants to go first.

House and Sen­ate lead­ers are at an im­passe about how to move a debt-ceil­ing bill, after sup­port for a House Re­pub­lic­an plan to con­di­tion­ally raise the na­tion’s bor­row­ing cap col­lapsed amid wide com­plaints with­in the con­fer­ence.

A Wed­nes­day whip check of a debt-lim­it bill craf­ted by the Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee found that it would not have enough GOP sup­port to pass the House, so lead­ers have aban­doned tent­at­ive plans to move for­ward with the bill, ac­cord­ing to sev­er­al sources with­in the lead­er­ship op­er­a­tion.

Many Re­pub­lic­ans ob­jec­ted to the fact that the meas­ure was not brought up through reg­u­lar or­der and that the full im­plic­a­tions of the plan could not be un­der­stood by mem­bers in the few days lead­ing up to what would have been a Fri­day vote.

Cent­rist mem­bers, mean­while, re­jec­ted the plan be­cause many be­lieve they will ul­ti­mately be called upon to bail out the con­fer­ence and vote for a clean debt-lim­it in­crease that most GOP mem­bers would re­ject. Vot­ing for the RSC plan and then a clean bill would have isol­ated them and made it ap­pear they were cav­ing while the rest of the con­fer­ence was stand­ing firm, ac­cord­ing to mem­bers and aides in­volved in the dis­cus­sions.

That same dy­nam­ic played out in 2014, when 28 Re­pub­lic­ans voted with most Demo­crats to ad­vance a debt-lim­it bill with no strings at­tached. But GOP lead­ers have said they are un­sure they could find that much sup­port this time around. Sev­er­al of the mem­bers who voted for the 2014 bill have since re­tired or been de­feated.

As a res­ult, the House may cede its po­s­i­tion as the body that will move a debt-lim­it bill first. Sev­er­al House lead­er­ship sources said the House would not likely act be­fore the Sen­ate, even though the up­per cham­ber’s unique pro­cessing is­sues would con­sid­er­ably slow the pro­cess.

Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers have said all week that they would wait on the House to act first, po­ten­tially ad­just­ing whatever the lower cham­ber sent over to en­sure that it could pass the Sen­ate with the ne­ces­sary Demo­crat­ic sup­port. Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 GOP lead­er, said Tues­day that lead­ers would prefer that the House act first be­cause the Sen­ate could need as long as a week to pass any­thing on the debt lim­it and lead­ers would hate to waste that floor time on something that couldn’t get to 218 votes in the House.

But with just a hand­ful of le­gis­lat­ive days left be­fore the coun­try reaches it debt lim­it, Sen­ate lead­er­ship may have to re­verse course and move be­fore the House. Lead­ers have not set a pub­lic dead­line for the House to act be­fore they move for­ward, but they ac­know­ledge that as they get closer to Nov. 3, the clock could force their hand.

“We’ve got, what, just two weeks from today ba­sic­ally,” Thune said Tues­day. “So yeah, I’d be game with the Sen­ate jump-start­ing this thing if ne­ces­sary.”

“We know what the dead­line is,” ad­ded GOP Sen­ate Whip John Cornyn on Thursday. “So we’re just wait­ing, for now, but at some point we prob­ably can’t af­ford to wait any longer.”

Lead­er­ship ex­pects to open any debt-lim­it le­gis­la­tion to amend­ment in the Sen­ate, which could present prob­lems in com­ing to agree­ment with the House, re­gard­less of which cham­ber moves first.

Some House lead­er­ship sources have said Speak­er John Boehner is con­tinu­ing to work with House Demo­crats and the White House to try to craft a com­prom­ise that would in­clude man­dat­ory spend­ing re­forms, thus at­tract­ing some Re­pub­lic­an votes. But time is run­ning short, and the White House has said of­ten that it does not plan to ne­go­ti­ate against the full faith and cred­it of the United States.

Whichever cham­ber moves first, Cornyn em­phas­ized Thursday, Con­gress will not al­low the U.S. to de­fault on its debt.