Senators from both parties want outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner, no longer handcuffed by hardliners in his conference, to send over as many treats as he can — with a minimum of tricks — before retiring around Halloween.
Four days after Boehner's announcement he'll step down next month, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was touting Tuesday the prospects for a two-year top-line budget deal — and Reid's wish list for Boehner's promised "barn cleaning " includes an increase in the federal debt limit.
"We have lots of things to do, and the debt ceiling is not going to be around forever. We're running out of money," Reid said. "I would hope that Boehner would make it easy on his people who are going to follow him and get it all done before he leaves."
Reid Pushes Boehner to Pass Budget, Debt Ceiling Measures
The debt limit is first among equals when it comes to must-pass items on the trick-or-treat list. Failure to extend the highway bill would bring projects to a halt on Oct. 29; failure to extend the nation's borrowing authority could have a far bigger impact, and it's not something either the White House or Reid are eager to see handed to an untested new speaker.
Asked about that issue at a news conference Tuesday morning, Boehner sounded like he would do it if he could.
"We'll have to see. There's a number of issues that we're gonna try to deal with over the coming month. But I'm not going to change my decision-making process in any way. Just a matter of if there's a way to get some things done so I don't burden my successor, I'm gonna get it finished," the Ohio Republican said.
Count Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune in the camp that would like to see the bigger challenges resolved before Boehner heads out to spend more time on the golf course.
"That's going to be a call he'll have to make. I would like to process those issues — all of those issues — before they become a big pileup at the end of the year, so if he's willing to do it, yeah," Thune said. "The sooner we get after some of that big stuff, the better off we'll be."
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn said in a brief interview that the debt ceiling might prove to be a bridge too far.
"My sense is that's probably overly ambitious for Oct. 30," the Texas Republican said, suggesting the budget debate and the debt-limit debate could be linked. "Obviously the CR runs out [on Dec. 11]."
But Cornyn and other Republicans like Rob Portman of Ohio pushed for action on the other must-pass issues.
"I'd like to see a highway bill, that would be a big deal. If we could so some things on tax extenders, that would be good," Cornyn said. "I think we should be open for business and do as much as the House can send us."
"I think highway bill for sure, and I hope a resolution on the taxes ... on the international side. I think debt limit is harder because I don't think we're going to get to that point, and until you get to that point around here, it's hard to ... mobilize support for doing something," Portman said. "My understanding is they're now saying November-December, which you know, happens to coincide with Dec. 11."
The Senate's surface transportation bill was the vehicle used in the chamber to pass a reauthorization of the now-lapsed Export-Import Bank, and Reid put that on a list of priority items before the new speaker takes office, as well.
First up will be a defense authorization conference report that was unveiled Tuesday afternoon by the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services panels. Discussions have also been ongoing on overhauling elementary and secondary education, a longtime priority of Boehner.
Beyond that, McConnell said he was not sure how productive the House would be, or if the two-year budget negotiations he supports could actually bear fruit before he has a new speaker to work with, like current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. — the favorite to succeed Boehner.
"We're going to have to deal with all of these issues between now and Dec. 11. Whether — how much of that could come together before Speaker Boehner leaves, I have no earthly idea, but we have a number of different things that need to be addressed, and the deadline is Dec. 11," McConnell told reporters.
McConnell Calls for Two-Year Budget Deal
The move that would most rile the conservative base is the one that would have perhaps have best chance of handling everything from the Ex-Im Bank to transportation to expiring tax provisions, the budgetary situation and the debt limit.
Boehner could pick up the Senate-passed long-term highway bill, add the debt limit and whatever other last-minute treats he can muster with substantial help from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her caucus and send the message — more a Great Pumpkin than a Christmas tree — back to the Senate.
Such a bill would probably pass with broad bipartisan support and gather the president's signature, provided it didn't attract any truly radioactive hitchhikers.
Cornyn said it would be important for whatever gets done by the House to be able to move in the Senate.
If Boehner doesn't deliver, the potential for chaos looms, with an untested new speaker facing the same unruly bunch that has bedeviled the Boehner speakership from the start.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the spectre of default would put significant pressure on the new speaker as the calendar turns from Halloween, through Thanksgiving and on toward Christmas.
"It could be uglier because I think we could come closer to a government shutdown, but a lot of it depends on McCarthy and his ability to bring these people together," McCain said of the anticipated speaker.