GOP may lack votes to pass spend­ing cuts as part of debt-limit in­crease

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY KELSEY SNELL kelsey.snell@wash­post.com

Af­ter years of Repub­li­can de­mands that any in­crease in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s bor­row­ing limit be paired with cor­re­spond­ing spend­ing cuts, lead­ers in Congress ap­pear to lack the votes to pass those cuts, even with to­tal GOP con­trol in Wash­ing­ton.

White House of­fi­cials have called on Congress to forgo a po­lit­i­cal fight and in­crease the debt limit by the Sept. 29 dead­line with­out at­tach­ing any con­tro­ver­sial leg­is­la­tion. That de­ci­sion means alien­at­ing con­ser­va­tives who have de­manded spend­ing cuts, likely forc­ing lead­ers to turn to Democrats to de­liver the votes nec­es­sary to avoid de­fault. That op­tion may be the safest way to avoid eco­nomic fall­out from the United States’ fail­ure to pay its bills. But it also risks an­ger­ing con­ser­va­tives who view the de­ci­sion as an un­ac­cept­able vi­o­la­tion of a core po­lit­i­cal prom­ise to cut spend­ing.

For months, con­ser­va­tives have said that they are will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate mod­est spend­ing cuts that could be con­sid­ered along­side the in­evitable debt-limit in­crease. But those talks never be­gan in earnest. In­stead, GOP law­mak­ers have been re­luc­tant to iden­tify any spe­cific cuts they be­lieve could get the sup­port of a ma­jor­ity of Repub­li­cans.

In­stead, many Repub­li­cans have spec­u­lated that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell (R-Ky.) will work with Democrats on a pack­age that could tie the debt limit to other bi­par­ti­san leg­is­la­tion, such as ex­tend­ing health-care cov­er­age for low-in­come chil­dren. The idea has con­ser­va­tives fum­ing.

“It’s sort of ab­surd to think that there are not more do­mes­tic dis­cre­tionary cuts that couldn’t hap­pen, but there isn’t the po­lit­i­cal will do to that,” said Dan Holler, vice pres­i­dent of the con­ser­va­tive group Her­itage Ac­tion.

“It’s also the type of sce­nario where con­ser­va­tives typ­i­cally lose out,” Holler said. “Con­ser­va­tives should not be on the los­ing end in such a trau­matic way with a Repub­li­can pres­i­dent. I think it’s a real test of this Congress.”

Holler and other con­ser­va­tives worry that the debt limit will be one of sev­eral con­ser­va­tive losses next month, when Congress faces a num­ber of press­ing dead­lines, in­clud­ing the one Sept. 29 to fund the gov­ern­ment and avoid a shut­down. Many Repub­li­cans pri­vately ad­mit that they ex­pect GOP lead­ers will rely on Democrats to pass a spend­ing bill, as well.

Repub­li­can lead­ers were forced to turn to Democrats to pass a $1.1 tril­lion spend­ing deal to avert a gov­ern­ment shut­down in May af­ter con­ser­va­tives re­fused to sup­port it. At the time, lead­ers said they would spend the next sev­eral months de­vel­op­ing a bud­get that would in­crease mil­i­tary spend­ing, cut do­mes­tic costs and re­duce the fed­eral deficit. But none of those plans have been re­al­ized.

In­stead, Congress was fo­cused on re­peal­ing and re­plac­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act. Repub­li­cans viewed re­peal­ing the ACA as a crit­i­cal first step in a dra­matic over­haul of gov­ern­ment spend­ing by mak­ing per­ma­nent steps to rein in en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams like Med­i­caid. But through­out the process Repub­li­cans strug­gled to back the plan, which would have gut­ted Med­i­caid and cut spend­ing on a num­ber of widely used health-care pro­grams.

Ul­ti­mately, those fears are what killed the leg­is­la­tion, rep­re­sent­ing the clear­est sign yet that some Repub­li­cans were not pre­pared to fol­low through on prom­ises to cut spend­ing.

Steve Bell, a for­mer staff di­rec­tor for the Se­nate Bud­get Com­mit­tee, said fed­eral spend­ing on do­mes­tic pro­grams has been con­strained for years and many of the re­main­ing ex­pen­di­tures are on pop­u­lar pro­grams that even many con­ser­va­tives don’t want to touch for fear of an­ger­ing vot­ers.

“The deficit hawks have been routed,” Bell said. “They will not touch Medi­care, Med­i­caid nor So­cial Se­cu­rity de­spite re­cent warnings from the trustees, de­spite the ab­so­lute un­de­ni­able facts. As long as they shy away from that, all the rest of that is blus­ter and mes­sag­ing.”

The White House has sig­naled that it doesn’t want to risk the pos­si­bil­ity of an­other stand­off when it comes to in­creas­ing the debt limit. Last month, Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven Mnuchin told mem­bers of the House Fi­nan­cial Ser­vices Com­mit­tee that the White House would not push for spend­ing cuts and would sup­port a “clean” debt-limit in­crease.

“There should be very strict con­trols of spend­ing money, but once we’ve agreed to spend the money, we should make sure that the gov­ern­ment can pay for it,” Mnuchin said.

There had been con­cerns that Mnuchin might be at odds with other fac­tions within the White House who were pri­vately push­ing Pres­i­dent Trump to de­mand cuts and flirt­ing with the idea of se­lec­tively pay­ing off debts beyond Septem­ber. Mnuchin dis­missed that talk, say­ing his view rep­re­sented the en­tire White House.

Con­gres­sional lead­ers have re­peat­edly vowed to ad­dress the debt limit soon af­ter they re­turn from Au­gust re­cess. In the House, mem­bers have 12 leg­isla­tive days to pass the in­crease and nearly half a dozen other must-pass pri­or­i­ties like the spend­ing bills — all dead­lines Ryan has vowed to meet.

“House Repub­li­cans are dis­cussing with the Se­nate and the ad­min­is­tra­tion, and we will act be­fore the dead­line,” said Ryan spokes­woman Ash­Lee Strong.

Still, con­ser­va­tive mem­bers of the House Free­dom Cau­cus say they want to work with Ryan on a plan to buck White House guid­ance and add mod­est spend­ing cuts to a debt-limit vote.

Rep. Jim Jor­dan (R-Ohio) and oth­ers have called on Ryan to can­cel a planned mid-Septem­ber break to stay in Wash­ing­ton and work out a plan for spend­ing cuts. Jor­dan said the House has barely touched on the debt limit and mem­bers haven’t had a chance to see if a deal can be reached.

“I think there could be the votes there, but we haven’t ex­plored that. We all went home,” Jor­dan said in an in­ter­view. “When you go home you don’t dis­cuss it, but then say you don’t have the votes. You didn’t even try.”

That lack of ef­fort has been a frus­tra­tion for many con­ser­va­tives who worry they will be alien­ated from the ne­go­ti­a­tions, de­spite prom­ises that lead­ers would pur­sue a deeply con­ser­va­tive agenda this year. Rep. Thomas Gar­rett (R-Va.) said Repub­li­cans should be held ac­count­able for prom­ises they made while cam­paign­ing, in­clud­ing pass­ing spend­ing cuts, even when they’re dif­fi­cult.

“We didn’t put a clean debtlimit in­crease in front of [Pres­i­dent Barack] Obama. Why would we do it now?” Gar­rett said in an in­ter­view. “The ‘I-don’t-want-todo-any­thing-un­pop­u­lar’ dis­ease af­fects both par­ties.”

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