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House Republicans Weigh Linking Debt Ceiling Increase to Spending Bill

The Wall Street Journal

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

In September, Congress passed a short-term measure keeping the government funded and suspending the debt ceiling just through Dec. 8. Lawmakers this week are expected to pass a short-term patch keeping the government running another two weeks. But they will have more time to deal with the debt limit, because the Treasury Department can deploy what is known as extraordinary measures, which enable them to continue paying the bills into next spring.

Congress likely won’t face a drop-dead deadline on the debt limit until March, the Bipartisan Policy Center estimated this week, tracking an earlier estimate from the Congressional Budget Office that extraordinary measures would last until March or April.

On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin sent a letter to congressional leaders notifying them that Treasury would begin taking those extraordinary measures on Friday, and urged lawmakers to raise the debt limit “at the first opportunity.”

Supporting an increase in the debt limit is one of the toughest votes for Republicans, many of whom routinely vote against raising it. Although the vote allows the government to pay the bills stemming from past spending and tax decisions, it can appear to voters and political opponents like a vote for more debt.

It could be a particularly difficult vote to cast for House Republicans facing conservative challengers in their primary elections next year. Most House GOP lawmakers are in safely red districts, so beating off any primary challengers is their main hurdle to securing their seat.

Primary elections ramp up quickly in 2018, with Texas in March and a slew of states in May.

House GOP aides said the idea of attaching a debt-limit increase to the next long-term spending bill hasn’t yet been debated among the most senior House GOP leaders, who are concentrating right now on getting the tax overhaul passed and preventing a government shutdown this week. But some lawmakers said they would prefer to deal with the debt limit before any procrastinating starts to rattle debt markets worried about a possible default.

“If it’s done in a prompt fashion ahead of a catastrophe situation, I think we’re all better served,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R., Okla.). Mr. Lucas acknowledged the difficulties involved in voting to raise the debt limit, “always a problematic issue” for Republicans, in the midst of primaries.

“Everything becomes more complicated in an even-numbered year—everything,” he said.

Mr. Collins said another option would be to wait until later to deal with the debt limit.

“There’s always the discussion that it comes up in March and we deal with it then,” he said.

But Republicans would likely be forced to make concessions to Democrats in order to pass a stand-alone bill. Attaching it to the omnibus has the advantage of rolling it into a bill that already will likely need Democratic support.

That would be similar to what happened in September, when the immediate need to keep the government open and provide emergency disaster-relief funding “greased the skids” for the debt limit vote, said Shai Akabas, the director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“There were a lot of other deadlines that took up a lot of the headlines and drew attention away from the debt limit,” Mr. Akabas said. “That seems to be the case right now.”

If the debt limit isn’t included in a broader legislative package, it isn’t clear how it would be addressed in advance of the March final deadline, and how the Trump administration would handle negotiations with Congress, he said. Adding to the uncertainty is the GOP’s tax overhaul bill, which if enacted could reduce government revenues early next year and potentially draw the final deadline closer, Mr. Akabas said.