House Republicans could be setting up another fight over the debt limit — this time, just months before the 2024 presidential election.
A sweeping, 320-page bill they unveiled this week would raise the debt ceiling, which caps how much money the Treasury can borrow to pay the country’s bills, through the end of next March or by $1.5 trillion, whichever happens first.
The move has already prompted fierce blowback from Democrats, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) dismissing the proposal as a non-starter and accusing Republicans of punting the issue.
“Amazingly, one of the few specifics [Speaker] McCarthy has presented is his terrible idea to kick the can down the road for just one year and undergo the same crisis again,” Schumer said this week. “Why would anyone want to undergo this crisis again, again and again?”
Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) brushed off questions about the proposed timeline earlier this week, instead turning his focus to Democrats for refusing to come to the table to work out a deal that pairs raising the debt limit with fiscal reforms.
“I think the most important thing here is I would like to do this together and solve this problem, but they don’t want it, so we’re going to send a bill over to the Senate,” McCarthy told The Hill.
But other Republicans defended the timeline.
Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) told The Hill he prefers extending the debt limit “for a short period of time,” saying the move would allow House Republicans more leverage to shape fiscal policy in a divided Congress.
“You get another bite at the apple in a little while,” Harris told The Hill.
Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the House’s largest GOP caucus, also said earlier this week shorter-term measures raising the debt limit could give the party more leeway for fiscal reforms. But he also said there’s other math at play behind the push.
“It really goes back to what you can actually get passed right now with 218 votes to be able to have that limit build your tail spinning right now,” Hern told The Hill. “It really is nothing about a second bite of the apple that’s not part of the calculus.”
“Look at the amount of money you would need to offset,” Hern said, adding the “debt ceiling would need to be raised to roughly $3.5 trillion to get beyond the election next year — and trying to find consensus on $3.5 trillion in savings might be very difficult.”
At the same time, some Republicans see their fight to curb spending as a winning issue, as the national debt hovers around the roughly $31.4 trillion threshold set by Congress more than a year ago.
“I think that spending is going to have a major impact on the presidential election because this inflation is hurting every American,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) said ahead of the bill’s release earlier this week.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) also said then that he thinks Americans “will look at a list of the things that we’re asking for and say that it makes total sense.”
“Everyone should know by now our debt [is] a problem,” he told The Hill, but he also said he “doesn’t think it affects the election too much one way or the other.”
“I talk to regular voters,” he said, “they’re not having talks about the debt limit increase at the kitchen table.”
Still, partisan battles over the limit can garner significant public interest when cuts to popular programs are on the table.
Recent examples include the months-long campaign by Democrats accusing Republicans of wanting to make cuts to popular programs like Social Security and Medicare — which GOP leaders adamantly vow is off the table in debt limit talks and weren’t included in the proposal rolled out this week.
And of course, there is the threat of a partisan fight triggering a federal default — an outcome Republicans in both chambers say won’t happen, but one experts warn could be catastrophic for the economy.
“It’s a risk because it’s a very volatile conference that McCarthy has to wrangle,” GOP strategist Rob Stutzman said. But he added that there’s a “pretty good upside for them as well.”
“If there’s a default, there’ll be massive blame,” he said, but he added: “I think the Republicans have wind in their sails and that there’s public opinion for them to use this as a leverage point on spending.”
Republicans saw an edge last year in polling when it comes to who Americans prefer on issues like the economy compared to Democrats.
Other polling has also shown a majority of Americans agree that the government is spending too much, with 60 percent of respondents saying so in an AP-NORC survey published in March.
But when pressed on where the government is spending too much, respondents in the poll, conducted between March 16-20, were largely divided in most areas. The only area where most voters — 69 percent — agreed is too costly is funding for assistance for other countries.
Coming in second was assistance for big cities, which 41 percent of respondents agreed the government spent too much on. And less than 30 percent of respondents said the same for areas like the military (29 percent), the environment (25 percent), aid for the poor (18 percent), child care assistance (16 percent), and education (12 percent).
The number of respondents who said spending for entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security was excessive was even smaller, with 10 percent and 7 percent, respectively, saying as much in the poll. Both programs account for a significant chunk of annual spending.
GOP leadership plans to vote on the debt ceiling bill next week. But its chances of passage are unclear as leaders still work to shore up necessary support.
Democrats and advocates have also come out against a slew of proposal attached to the newly unveiled debt ceiling bill. That includes portions targeting popular decisions by the Biden administration on student loans, beefed up work requirements for food stamps recipients and those on Medicaid, among a host of other partisan plans.
The bill is very unlikely to pass the Democratic-led Senate as it stands. And though there is also support among Republicans in the Senate, they also acknowledge the final bill will ultimately need the backing of both parties to secure passage.
“It’s what he can get done, and it’s what the president would accept,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said when discussing the proposed election-year timeline and the impact another debt limit fight slated for early 2024 would have on the presidential race.
“That’s the reason why I say let them fight it out first, because clearly the President is going to have an interest in the presidential cycle,” Rounds said. “And most certainly the Speaker has an interest in the presidential cycle.”