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.”