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Roll Call

Portman Urges White House to Abandon Debt Limit Stance

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Portman is seeking GOP signatures for a letter to the president about the procedure involved in raising the debt ceiling.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, plans to send a letter to President Barack Obama Wednesday urging the White House to reconsider reforms to the procedure involved in raising the debt ceiling.

The former Office of Management and Budget head is currently circulating the letter among his colleagues to garner more support against a proposal offered last week in closed-door meetings by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner to Republican leaders of Congress.

“For Congress to surrender its control over the debt limit would be to permanently surrender what has long provided the best opportunity to enact bipartisan deficit reduction legislation,” Portman wrote in a draft of the letter obtained by Roll Call. “We also believe that Congress’s power over borrowing, like the power of the purse, is firmly rooted in our constitutional tradition.”

A source tracking the effort said Portman hopes to obtain the signatures of a significant chunk of the Senate GOP caucus.

The fight over extending the government’s borrowing capacity has been the source of each major budget fight this Congress, including the current negotiations to avert the Jan. 1 expiration of massive tax cuts and implementation of across-the-board discretionary spending cuts triggered by the failure of 2011’s Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, of which Portman was a member.

In 2011, Republicans, boosted by strong midterm elections and led by Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, demanded spending cuts commensurate with the level of the president’s debt ceiling request.

Since Geithner’s Nov. 29 meetings on the Hill, Democrats and Republicans have been trying to win the message war on the debt limit issue, with Geithner appearing on all five major Sunday talk shows to defend the administration’s position.

Earlier Wednesday, the Treasury Department posted to its official blog a detailed explanation of its debt ceiling proposal. According to the blog, the administration would like to implement the so-called McConnell provision, in which Congress received the right to formally “disapprove” of debt ceiling increases before the president vetoes their bill, thereby extending the government’s borrowing capacity.

This maneuver was used in August 2011 — the last time Congress raised the debt ceiling — but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Roll Call last week in an interview that he thought changing the debt ceiling procedural rules was “highly irresponsible talk.”

“Under the McConnell Provision, Congress would retain its authority to disapprove any increase in the debt limit. In fact, the provision was specifically designed to permit increases in the debt limit only after both houses of Congress were given the opportunity to vote on whether to approve or disapprove any increases,” wrote Jenni LeCompte, the Treasury’s assistant secretary for public affairs.

“Extending the McConnell provision would not permit the executive branch to spend money or collect revenues without prior congressional approval,” the blog continued. “It simply allows the government to finance existing legal obligations that Congresses and presidents of both parties have approved in the past.”

Yet Republicans are still pushing back, and Portman’s letter closed with a plea to the president to reconsider his position, given his vote against extending the debt limit in 2006.

“Mr. President, while serving in the United States Senate, you acknowledged the Congress’s important role in establishing the debt limit when you voted against raising it in 2006,” the draft of the letter reads. “We believe that preserving Congress’s role in setting the debt limit is necessary to encourage deficit reduction and uphold our constitutional tradition of legislative control over borrowing.”

McConnell’s office also hit back against the plan, saying, “While we’re certainly flattered that the administration praised one piece of the Budget Control Act, they seem to have amnesia on the rest of the plan. Namely, the debt ceiling was raised last year only after the White House agreed to at least $2 TRILLION in cuts to Washington spending, and agreed to be bound by the timing and amount set by Congress — not his own whim.”

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