Senate GOP rejects debt limit fix on must-pass defense bill

Senate Republicans are rejecting a proposal floated by congressional Democratic leaders to attach a debt limit fix to the annual defense policy measure — typically treated as a must-pass bill.

Senior Democrats are discussing combining the two items in a single legislative vehicle in a bid to end their partisan skirmish with upper-chamber Republicans who have refused to help them adjust the nation's borrowing limit. But the Senate GOP largely poured cold water on the idea Monday and warned that the move would endanger the defense bill.

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, a member of GOP leadership, addressed the potential debt limit fix bluntly: “Not happy about it.”

“I think that sets a bad precedent,” Ernst said. “It might be able to pass, but it's something we all need to talk about, and I just don't think we should be operating like this.”

The debt-on-defense-bill gambit comes as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have been quietly negotiating a path forward to suspend the borrowing limit and avoid a catastrophic government default. The Treasury Department currently predicts the federal government will hit its current debt ceiling on Dec. 15. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s most recent estimate projects the so-called "X date" for default will fall between Dec. 21 and Jan. 28, 2022.

Many Republicans argue that attaching the debt limit to the annual defense policy bill would force them to take an unreasonably tough vote, given widespread GOP support for the defense bill and strong opposition in their party to complying with a suspension of the debt limit.

Democrats have privately suggested that McConnell is open to attaching the debt limit onto the defense policy bill, and the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee suggested Monday night that he would still vote yes on the combined vehicle: “What I don’t want to do — is for anything to happen to our NDAA that would negatively impact it,” Oklahoma's Jim Inhofe told reporters.

Still, multiple others in the GOP are ice-cold to the prospect.

“It would be misinterpreted that Republican support for the [defense policy bill] would also include" supporting a hike in the debt limit, said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a top McConnell consigliere. “That's why I think the message could be muddled. I don't like the idea.”

Senate Republicans have long insisted that if Democrats want to suspend the debt limit they must do so on their own, a protest against the price tag of the majority party's forthcoming social spending bill. Democrats counter that suspending the debt limit along party lines would set a problematic precedent and note that a significant amount of the debt that's causing the current problem was incurred under the Trump administration.

House leaders are currently weighing three options for moving forward on the defense policy bill and the debt limit, according to a senior Democratic aide. The first option would separate the two pieces of legislation — anchored by House Democrats' passage of a stand-alone bill that would allow the Senate to fast-track a debt ceiling hike on its side of the building.

The second and third options would ultimately move the two bills as a single piece of legislation. In any of those three scenarios, the legislation would likely need at least 10 GOP votes to advance, an outcome that appears unlikely for the second and third options.

The tone between McConnell and Schumer in the lead-up to the next borrowing deadline has significantly improved compared to the fall, however. McConnell provided the 11 GOP votes necessary in October to allow Democrats to suspend the debt limit for two months. He's continued to insist that Democrats should use the time-consuming budget reconciliation process to raise the debt limit while steering around a GOP filibuster, but he's also kept the lines of communication open with Schumer.

The debt limit came up briefly during this week's Senate GOP leadership meeting, and McConnell indicated he was still speaking to Schumer, according to an attendee who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) described including the debt limit in the defense policy bill as a “terrible idea” and predicted it would fail to get the needed support from 10 Republicans to move forward.

“We’ve been pretty clear that we’re not actually going to be a part of actually helping them with adding trillions of additional debt that we had no part of,” Lankford said Monday. “That’s been a pretty clear statement from the beginning on this, and it should continue to be that.”

Even as the path forward on the debt limit remains unclear, both parties' leaders have emphasized that they will not let the government default.

Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.), asked if he favored attaching the debt fix to the defense bill he shepherds through Congress, took a long pause before saying that “if it’s the way to get the debt ceiling passed, absolutely. We’ve got to get the debt ceiling raised.”

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), said he would need to review any proposal to include the debt limit in the defense policy bill, but noted that it “probably has to be” addressed before Democrats’ social spending bill — which is currently slated to hit the Senate floor as soon as next week.

“The debt ceiling is something we can’t play games with,” Manchin said. “And you’ve got to get that done. You’ve got to pay.”

Andrew Desiderio, Heather Caygle and Caitlin Emma contributed to this report.