As Republicans about to have unified control of the government ready their 100-day agenda, one thing is notably missing: a plan for addressing the government’s borrowing authority when the current debt limit suspension expires on March 15.
Congress suspended the debt ceiling as part of a budget deal former Speaker John A. Boehner negotiated before leaving office in the fall of 2015. When the suspension lifts, the cap will need to be raised or suspended again for the United States to avoid default.
Republican lawmakers are already expecting that the incoming administration will use what is known as “extraordinary measures” to punt the deadline further into the calendar year.
“We’re not going to default on our nation’s debt. And the administration, as we know, has a lot of flexibility when they call the date,” said New York GOP Rep. Chris Collins, a congressional liaison to President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team.
Collins told Roll Call that the debt ceiling is not a part of the Trump administration’s legislative agenda for its first 100 days.
“We’re filling spots and jobs and getting ready. It’s going to have to be a true debate within our conference and the administration as to where we go with all that,” he said.
The incoming administration prefers to use its post-election momentum to repeal the 2010 health care law, roll back possibly hundreds of regulations and enhance security along the southern border.
Dealing with the deficit has not been nearly as prominent. The president-elect has offered no proposals for cutting costs of Social Security or Medicare, two entitlement programs that are primary drivers of the growing shortfall.
“Neither of the presidential candidates had a thing to say,” said Rep. Tom Cole, noting that Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton only talked on the trail about paying for spending increases they were proposing.
“You’re going to have to tackle entitlement reform,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “If the new president doesn’t do it in his first term, he’ll be running for re-election — or his successor will be running for election — with a rising deficit on his watch. And that’s not a good place to be.”
Conservatives have already begun drafting deficit reduction plans they’d like to see paired with any increase in the debt ceiling.
“We’re hopeful to come up with entitlement reform and deficit reduction plans in the first 30 days,” said newly elected House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows.
The North Carolina Republican said he met last Wednesday with Freedom Caucus member Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona, who is working on ideas for overhauls that they hope to present to the roughly 40-member conservative caucus in early January. Schweikert was unavailable to comment.
Meadows said he is only willing to entertain a debt ceiling increase if it’s attached to a comprehensive deficit reduction plan.
“Just increasing the debt, adding on to the debt without a plan to pay it off other than our children or grandchildren is problematic,” he said.
Fellow North Carolina GOP Rep. Mark Walker also referenced Schweikert’s work when speaking about options for dealing with the debt ceiling. He too believes any increase should be paired with deficit-reducing legislation.
“We’ve got to get beyond the tongue-in-cheek and really talk about mandatory spending across the board,” he said.
Walker is the incoming chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the larger and more mainstream conservative caucus in the House. He said there is a “very good chance” that the RSC will release its own proposal for dealing with the debt ceiling early next year.
“It is something that we’re going to be addressing in the RSC in January and not waiting for the last minute when it comes due in March,” Walker said.
Cole said he and Democratic Rep. John Delaney of Maryland have talked about pushing their proposal to overhaul Social Security as a sweetener for a debt ceiling increase.
“Social Security is the easiest one to deal with because it’s basically a math problem,” Cole said, explaining that it simply involves decisions about the retirement age, the cap on payroll taxes and progressive indexation or means testing.
Despite the appetite among the Republican rank and file to do something about the deficit, it’s unclear whether GOP leaders will push for spending cuts to be part of a debt ceiling increase.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s spokeswomen AshLee Strong declined to specify his position on when and how Congress should address the debt ceiling. She did confirm that the speaker’s office and the Trump transition team have discussed the matter.
Across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave a history lesson Monday when asked whether his previous position that the debt ceiling should be used as an instrument to reduce the deficit will hold.
The Kentucky Republican said the debt ceiling was a useful tool in forcing the sequester, automatic spending cuts that he said have “put a lot of pressure on domestic discretionary spending.” But he also noted that Congress has raised the debt ceiling several times without an effort to cut spending.
“It’s unclear to me whether raising the debt ceiling will end up carrying anything with it or not,” McConnell said.
For most of President Barack Obama’s time in office, House Republicans have called for a dollar in spending cuts for every dollar increase in the debt ceiling. Cole said he doesn’t see that as a necessity anymore since congressional Republicans will be negotiating with a president “that you hope, long-term, thinks debt is a bad thing.”
What’s important, Cole said, is that Republicans present a credible plan for restoring the fiscal health of the country.
“I think sticking your head in the sand, as we’re prone to do around here, is a big mistake,” he said.
Cole predicted Democrats will be a position to extract some “major concessions” if the GOP doesn’t stay united.
Newly elected House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley of New York cautioned that Republicans are “playing with fire” if they think they can make drastic cuts to entitlement programs like Social Security or Medicare, saying, “It’s now up to them to show that they can actually lead without doing damage and harm to the American people.”
“They control the House, the Senate and the presidency and let’s see how they deal with this issue,” he said.
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.