Hardline conservative demands mean no easy okay for debt limit hike

Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., walks down the House steps as he leaves the Capitol. Meadows heads the conservative Republican Study Committee.
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., walks down the House steps as he leaves the Capitol. Meadows heads the conservative Republican Study Committee. AP

As they headed for the doors at the start of August, Republicans appeared close to consensus on approving an increase to the nation’s borrowing limit with no strings attached.

Not anymore.

Hardcore conservatives on Capitol Hill and allied outside groups are insisting that no measure to raise the debt ceiling should pass without provisions to curb government spending.

They’re also warning that unless they get some concessions, other White House agenda items, such as overhauling the tax code, could lose conservative support.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said that the country will reach the debt limit on Sept. 29. The Treasury Department has been employing emergency measures to delay default.

President Donald Trump tried to blame Democrats for any problems holding up approval of a new debt limit. He warned Thursday that the effort to increase the nation’s borrowing limit is “now a mess.” And he appeared to be placing blame for any turmoil to come on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

"I requested that Mitch M & Paul R tie the Debt Ceiling legislation into the popular V.A. Bill (which just passed) for easy approval," Trump tweeted, referring to a veterans bill that Congress passed and the president signed Wednesday. "…didn’t do it so now we have a big deal with Dems holding them up (as usual) on Debt Ceiling approval. Could have been so easy – now a mess!"

Trump failed to mention that his own party could be the major troublemaker.

Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee have said they would support increasing the debt limit if it was accompanied by large spending cuts and changes that would limit future spending.

"The debt ceiling needs to be raised," Republican Study Committee Chair Mark Walker, R-N.C., wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Examiner earlier this month. "But the debt ceiling increase needs to be accompanied by reforms to address the problems that cause it. We can’t afford to kick this can down the road. Otherwise, Republicans lose credibility the next time we point out (as we often do) that the national debt is a serious problem."

The RSC, which includes 172 of the House’s 240 Republicans, attempts to pull GOP leadership more to the right on key issues. Its membership includes Reps. Diane Black, R-Tenn., chairwoman of the House Budget Committee, and Tom Cole, R-Okla., a confidant of the House’s Republican leadership.

GOP congressional leaders are also being encouraged by outside conservative groups such as Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, and FreedomWorks.

The debt ceiling debate is "an opportunity for elected leaders to begin addressing our nation’s huge, long-term spending challenges," said Dan Holler, Heritage Action vice president.

"Ignoring that opportunity for the sake of political expediency only serves to hamper long-term economic growth," he said Thursday.

At FreedomWorks, President Adam Brandon is urging passage of the Debt Ceiling Alternative Act. It would require several steps to reduce the debt, including rescission of unobligated funds that exceed $900 billion. It would also allow for the sale of mortgage-related assets owned by the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation and securities held by the Federal Reserve.

FreedomWorks is also circulating a memo warning that other White House priorities could be threatened. The memo, first reported by Politico, was the subject of a FreedomWorks tweet Thursday.

Congressional leaders remain publicly unworried. Ryan said in a CNBC interview Thursday that he didn’t take Trump’s caustic tweets Thursday as a threat.

"I’m really not that worried about this, we have plenty of options ahead of us," Ryan said of the debt ceiling, without offering specifics. "We will pass the increase before we hit the debt limit."

McConnell said the same thing in Kentucky Monday at an event with Mnuchin at his side.

"There is zero chance – no chance – we won’t raise the debt ceiling. No chance," McConnell said. "America’s not going to default."

Raising the debt limit used to be a routine legislative act, but the exercise has become a source of drama in Congress in recent years.

In 2015, then-President Barack Obama and Congress agreed to push back deliberations on the debt limit until March 2017 in order to avoid pre-election political skirmishes that could lead to shutdowns or harm the nation’s credit standing.

While some conservatives want to use the debt ceiling to battle over spending, others said they’re resigned to the fact the Congress will likely raise it without a budgetary fight.

"There was a time when the tea party got pretty exercised about the debt limit because we wanted them not to raise it or, at the very least, to use it to hold down spending," said Mark Meckler, who co-founded the Tea Party Patriots. "What we’ve learned since is both parties enjoy spending more and more money and there’s no chance that they’re going to not raise the debt ceiling."

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas