Congress

Top Democrats wary of attaching debt limit to wrap-up spending measure

From left, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., prepare for a news conference after the Senate Policy luncheons in the Capitol on Tuesday, January 29, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Top Democrats said Tuesday they don’t support attaching a debt limit suspension to a fiscal 2019 appropriations package lawmakers want to wrap up by Feb. 15.

“No more hostages,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters. “No, I think that’s not a good idea. We ought to be negotiating to get an agreement, not add added elements into it.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., suggested attaching the debt limit and possibly a two-year budget caps agreement in an interview with CNN earlier Tuesday. Graham said he had raised the possibility with President Donald Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at a dinner Monday night. He said Mnuchin endorsed the idea, but Graham declined to characterize Trump’s reaction.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also seemed skeptical of the idea of injecting the debt ceiling into the conference on Homeland Security appropriations, the anticipated vehicle for a deal on border security funding as well as the six other outstanding fiscal 2019 spending bills.

“What’s that, another South Carolina notion?” Pelosi said. “There’s one a day.”

The first meeting of the House-Senate conference on the Homeland Security measure is scheduled for Wednesday, though little progress beyond opening statements is expected. Current stopgap funding for all nine remaining Cabinet departments without full-year appropriations expires Feb. 15.

The most recent debt limit suspension will expire on March 1, after which the ceiling will reset to the latest amount of debt incurred by that date. Technically, Treasury can’t borrow any more at that point, but Mnuchin is expected to use accounting maneuvers, such as suspending reinvestments of securities held in government trust funds, to allow the U.S. to continue borrowing for several more months.

The real deadline is expected sometime in late summer, though Treasury has to continually evaluate the inflow and outflow of federal revenue. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., on Tuesday sent a letter to Mnuchin asking for clarity on when Congress will need to act, arguing that any “brinksmanship” over suspending the limit again would result in a far greater economic hit than the 35-day partial shutdown.

Additionally, lawmakers and the White House want to work out a discretionary spending caps deal to replace the more stringent limits for fiscal 2020-21 under current law.

Defense budget caps would be cut 11 percent in fiscal 2020 from this year’s limit, and nondefense faces a 9 percent cut, if there’s no deal. Graham is among the GOP defense hawks who want to ensure robust military funding, and he’s also chairman of the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, which is subject to nondefense caps.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., also rejected Graham’s idea of attaching debt limit or budget caps language to a fiscal 2019 appropriations package.

“He’s a good friend. I’ve worked with him. . . . Just tell him, ‘My friend, don’t make this more complicated,’” said Lowey, who also chairs the State-Foreign Operations panel in her chamber. “Right now my responsibility is dealing with Homeland Security, and I have not considered broadening the challenge.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., told reporters he’s not opposed to including spending level talks or discussions about the debt limit in negotiations over border security spending.

“If we package something that we’re going to have to face anyway and get something done — especially if we get the shutdown syndrome out of the way — let’s do it,” he said.

Shelby told reporters that negotiators may go to the White House on Thursday to discuss spending issues, but he hasn’t yet received an official invitation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., didn’t specifically address his views on attaching a debt limit provision. But he indicated that he had no concerns about the Homeland Security conference committee expanding the scope of the discussion if needed to get an agreement.

McConnell told reporters that his real concern was finding an agreement that would prevent another shutdown and not prompt Trump to declare a national emergency and tap existing funds to build a wall on the southern border.

Jennifer Shutt, Lindsey McPherson, Niels Lesniewski and Doug Sword contributed to this report.

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