Senate Democrats have no interest in discussing a budget deal until the threat of a debt default is off the table.
Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said party leaders hope the debt limit can be dealt with this week, allowing budget negotiations an opportunity to be more productive. "I think what we heard here is the focus is on the two-week debt ceiling deadline," the Illinois Democrat told reporters Tuesday after the caucus lunch. "That is looming, and we're already seeing evidence of its impact on the economy."
Durbin's timeline seems like wishful thinking, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he wanted to see the House move first to address the debt limit. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has told lawmakers he expects extraordinary measures to avert default will have run their course by Nov. 3.
"Obviously we don't prefer a clean debt ceiling," McConnell said. "We'll have to see what the House sends over, and we'll act accordingly."
As CQ Roll Call reported earlier Tuesday, House Republican leaders plan to advance a clean debt limit increase as early as this week, or next week at the latest.
The current continuing resolution keeping the government funded will run out on Dec. 11, and while budget talks have been underway, that issue, including the identification of offsets for a potential two-year agreement, seems to be taking a backseat to the more urgent debt situation.
"Until we get the debt ceiling done, I don't think there's going to be anything done [of] a serious nature," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said. "On the debt ceiling, it is non-negotiable. It is straight up-or-down vote on extending the debt of this country. It's important, and I remind everyone this is not for some new program that somebody dreamed up. It's not for new taxes, it's for taking care of the bills that we've already approved."
McConnell Waits for House to Act on Debt Limit
Speaking with reporters after Tuesday's caucus meeting, Reid quoted from — among others — House Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., on the economic risks and consequences of default. Reid also expressed hope Ryan would emerge as the next speaker .
Durbin said he hoped House Republicans would move forward quickly to allow the Senate to take up the debt limit bill with time to spare, with the expectation of objections from Republicans against an increase without budget process changes.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for instance, has announced he is bringing back an updated version of "cut, cap and balance" legislation. He is working with House sponsor Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina to build grass-roots support.
Asked whether the debt limit debate could require weekend work in the Senate, Durbin said, "Well, you know how the Senate works."
He alluded to the familiar phenomenon of objections falling by the wayside, or allowing for time agreements for votes to allow senators to get home or on the campaign trail for the weekend. While Democrats would gladly resolve the crisis-of-the-moment with a clean debt limit increase into 2017, the reality is that some in their caucus wish there was a better answer going forward.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, a member of the Democratic caucus, said in an interview he would be interested in making lawmakers approve debt ceiling increases along with spending, rather than have the current bifurcated process.
An old process called the Gephardt rule provided that final adoption of a budget resolution would provide for enough borrowing authority for that budget. With Republicans in charge of both sides of the Capitol, Congress adopted a budget for fiscal 2016, though Democrats blocked the advancement of appropriation bills in the Senate, citing a broader dispute over the budget levels.
"My feeling is, if you vote for the spending, you can't turn around and vote against the debt limit. That's too easy," King said. "The debt limit consideration should be part-and-parcel of the spending decision."
King lamented the practice of senators voting for spending measures and sending press releases back home touting benefits of the spending, while opposing paying up when the bill comes true.
"Most people think this is Congress wanting to open the door to new spending," King said. "In reality, it's retrospective not prospective, so that's a big misunderstanding about this whole issue."
Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.