Policy

Why the Freedom Caucus May Vote for a Debt Ceiling Increase

Contingencies: Debt prioritization and August deadline

OMB Director Mick Mulvaney takes a break during testimony before a House Budget Committee hearing in Longworth Building titled "The President's FY2018 Budget" on May 24, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House Freedom Caucus is looking for a debt ceiling increase by August and it’s willing to lend votes to pass one — with some caveats.

According to a source familiar with the group’s plans, the Freedom Caucus could soon take an official position saying they will provide votes for a debt ceiling increase conditional on two things — that the measure includes structural changes designed to give Treasury borrowing authority for specific obligations, known as debt prioritization, and that a vote occurs before Congress leaves for the August recess.

The caucus began discussions on the idea during their weekly meeting Monday and those talks are continuing this week.

A formal position from the Freedom Caucus, which requires support of at least 80 percent of their roughly three dozen members, would be significant because it would mean House Republicans would have an opportunity to pass a debt ceiling increase without Democratic votes.

Conservatives inside and outside the Freedom Caucus have typically voted against “clean” debt ceiling increases, which has given Democrats leverage on the issue. But conservatives have supported separate legislation to prioritize specific debt payments and make other structural changes designed to prevent a continually increasing debt limit. With Republicans now in control of Congress and the White House, conservatives feel they have an opportunity to couple the two and get legislation to the president’s desk.

The Freedom Caucus has not yet settled on a specific proposal it would push for on the structural changes, but the source familiar with the plans said Reps. Tom McClintock of California and Dave Schweikert of Arizona have worked on language that is an option being considered.

The Freedom Caucus’s plans are timely as Office and Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a founding member of the conservative group, suggested on Wednesday during a House Budget Committee hearing that Congress may need to act more quickly than expected to raise the borrowing limit because tax receipts are coming in “a little bit slower than expected.”

The debt ceiling suspension lifted in March but Treasury has been using so-called extraordinary measures, like the use of tax receipts, to continue making payments.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, speaking at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing Wednesday, urged Congress to raise the debt limit before the August.

The Freedom Caucus’s urgency, however, is not tied to Mulvaney’s admission or Mnuchin’s request. According to the source familiar with it’s plans, the group wants to push for a vote by August because it feels Congress needs to stop governing by crisis and address issues in advance of the deadlines lawmakers have created for themselves.

Paul M. Krawzak and Alan K. Ota contributed to this report.

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