Setting the stage for the next debt limit showdown

2013 effort put paychecks of members on the line

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has made it clear that Republicans will need to get something in exchange for voting to raise the debt limit.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has made it clear that Republicans will need to get something in exchange for voting to raise the debt limit. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 10, 2021 at 5:00am

The Biden administration and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are laying down their markers for yet another standoff over meeting the government’s debt obligations, and they have plenty of history to guide them on how these things go.

This time, Senate Republicans are daring Democrats to go it alone through the budget reconciliation process — despite no such instructions to raise or suspend the debt limit being included in the fiscal 2022 budget resolution unveiled Monday by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Budget Chair Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

If Schumer is expecting GOP votes, Republican senators will want concessions that reflect on their own policy agenda, despite the fact that the debt limit, as Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen stated in a letter to Congress Monday, was “accrued prior to the administration taking office” and reflects spending decisions by both Democrats and Republicans.

“The Democrats control the White House, the House and the Senate. If they want to raise the debt, they can do it in this budget reconciliation process. They can do it without any Republican votes,” Florida GOP Sen. Rick Scott told reporters Monday. “I oppose raising the debt ceiling without structural change.”

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has repeatedly indicated the same sentiment, and his staff has sought to make clear that Schumer could move it as part of reconciliation without his help.

Appearing alongside Scott, who is also the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Sen. Ron Johnson said Senate Republicans would want to exact a price for raising the debt limit through more regular order, as Yellen implored the legislative branch to do.

“We said if there’s any contemplation of raising the debt ceiling, we ought to get something for it. You ought to institute some type of fiscal control in exchange for that,” the Wisconsin senator said of the Senate GOP conference’s position. “I think what we’re saying is Democrats have every capability of increasing the debt ceiling. It’s their out-of-control budget that is going to force increasing the debt ceiling, so they should do it. They should be honest that way.”

Since President Barack Obama signed the Budget Control Act into law on Aug. 2, 2011, there have been seven additional rounds of negotiating the terms of the debt limit and related fiscal policy.

Some of those have included broader agreements on spending, been attached to continuing resolutions or tied to other must-pass efforts. That could be the case again, with the Treasury Department already using extraordinary measures and likely needing action on the debt limit in September, around the time of the end of the government's fiscal year. Budget deals in 2019, 2018 and 2015 suspended the debt limit after lawmakers arrived at agreements on setting discretionary spending on defense and nondefense programs, giving each side wins on their policy goals.

Salary as motivator

There have also been efforts to tie the debt limit more closely to one party by allowing for votes on joint resolutions of disapproval of a certification by the president that the debt limit needed to be suspended.

Perhaps the most unique attempt to put the onus on both parties came at a time of divided government — and would have included using members’ personal financial situations as the stick to prod action.

At the start of the 113th Congress in 2013, the House Republican majority at the time was faced with a debt ceiling suspension that had just lapsed, meaning the Treasury Department was already deploying what are known as extraordinary measures to continue to meet the country’s obligations. Faced with the deadline, the House GOP opted for a short-term suspension until May 19, attaching a measure seeking to escrow lawmaker salaries in the event they didn’t quickly move a budget resolution for fiscal 2014 (the so-called “no budget, no pay” plan).

That vote may be instructive: the attached member pay measure was not a particularly substantial proposal. There were no wide-reaching consequences for federal spending, but in the Democratic-led Senate — even though it was the brainchild of the House GOP — of the 34 senators who voted "no," 33 were Republicans. That list included McConnell.

“We can take on this challenge together if both sides are ready to do the necessary work to reform spending. But we need to get started today — not next week, not in April,” McConnell said at the time. Still, both chambers cleared the measure and Obama signed it into law.

The one Democrat who joined the 33 in the GOP in voting "no" at that time may also be significant: It was Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia. In the current 50-50 Senate, every Democratic vote would count if Schumer and the Biden administration were to open the reconciliation door.

The House and Senate each adopted budget resolutions before the deadline, so no member had his or her salary withheld. After May 19, 2013, the Treasury once again used extraordinary measures to avoid defaulting until Congress once again acted in October — not only suspending the debt limit but also ending a government shutdown.

Bipartisan action sought

For now, the administration continues to call for bipartisan action.

“In recent years Congress has addressed the debt limit through regular order, with broad bipartisan support.  In fact, during the last administration, Democrats and Republicans came together to do their duty three times,” Yellen said in her letter. “Congress should do so again now by increasing or suspending the debt limit on a bipartisan basis.”

Sen. Jon Tester was less eloquent in making a similar point last week to the Capitol Hill press corps, when asked about McConnell’s suggestion that Democrats raise or suspend the debt limit on their own.

“They don’t want to do it at all? So they just want to invite China to come over and take over the country?” the Montana Democrat said. “Total crap. It should be a joint effort.”