Republican: Senate could raise debt cap without strings

WASHINGTON — The Senate’s third-ranking Republican predicted his party may provide enough votes to raise the U.S. debt limit in February without conditions, such as defunding Obamacare, that members sought in the past.

“I suspect that with Democrats, there are probably enough Republicans in the Senate that would vote for a clean debt limit increase,” said South Dakota Senator John Thune. He said he hadn’t conducted a formal vote count.

Separately, House Republicans ended a policy retreat in Maryland Friday without deciding on their strategy for the debt limit debate, said two people who attended the private discussions and sought anonymity to describe them publicly. Party members, chastened from prior debt-limit fights, realize that default isn’t an option, one of the people said.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said Congress should raise the debt ceiling as soon as possible, and that the United States will reach its borrowing limit by late February.

A dispute over raising the debt limit was among the issues that led to the 16-day partial government shutdown in October. House Republicans tried repeatedly to attach policy provisions curbing the Affordable Care Act and promoting the Keystone XL pipeline in exchange for raising the debt cap and funding the government.

Ultimately, the debt limit was suspended through Feb. 7 with no conditions, through bipartisan votes in the Republican- led House and Democratic-controlled Senate. Twenty-seven Senate Republicans joined Democrats in passing the so-called “clean” debt ceiling increase on Oct. 16.

A number of Senate Republicans interviewed this week said they want to avoid another fight over Obamacare as part of the debt-limit debate. Instead, they said Republicans should focus on cuts in federal spending or long-term debt reduction.

“It would be really nice, if you’re going to do something in the context of raising the debt ceiling, that it be about reforming spending, something that actually impacts the debt,” Thune said. “But the chances of getting anything meaningful on that front through probably aren’t very good.”

Several House Republicans have previously said they will urge the Senate, which Democrats control 55-45, to act first. President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, have said they won’t negotiate with Republicans on the debt ceiling.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who faces a tea party-backed challenge to his re-election bid this year, said Republicans would be foolish to wage another battle over Obamacare and tie it to raising the debt ceiling.

“We’ve been down that road,” Graham said. “Let’s try to do things where there is bipartisan support.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who led the effort to shut down the government over Obamacare, stopped short of saying Thursday at a Bloomberg Government breakfast that he would fight over the health-care law as part of the next debt ceiling increase.

Cruz said Republicans should use a debt limit increase as an effective “lever point” to insist on “significant structural reforms that address the out-of-control spending and out-of-control debt in Washington.”

Without the support of at least 40 other senators, all Cruz could do is delay – not block – a debt ceiling increase without spending cuts.

Other Republicans stopped short of making specific demands. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said an attempt to secure additional spending cuts, particularly to mandatory spending and entitlement programs, “ought to be the focus” of his party’s efforts.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said he would like to see “another agreement to actually lower debt, particularly on the entitlement side,” akin to the 2011 agreement that led to automatic U.S. spending cuts last year.

Republicans would be wiser to take that approach than to reprise issues like Obamacare and approval of the Keystone pipeline, Flake said.

“It makes more sense to deal with something that is germane and relevant,” he said.

The Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said Republicans would block a “clean” debt ceiling increase at their political peril.

“The bottom line for the Republicans is anything that looks like another government shutdown or a shutdown of the economy is lethal in an election year,” Durbin said in an interview. “If they test this president, they’re going to remind everyone of that miserable 16-day, worthless, good-for- nothing shutdown that they inspired a few months ago.”

In the midst of the October shutdown, Republicans’ favorability rating among the American public sank to a record low 28 percent in Gallup’s monthly polling.

The Treasury would have to employ what officials call extraordinary measures to extend U.S. borrowing authority past Feb. 7. Lew has said the ability to meet obligations will run out before the end of February.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said his Republican colleagues haven’t focused much on the need to again raise the debt ceiling. He said a final measure may not end up including conditions.

“If we attach anything to it, I hope it’s around fiscal reforms, which is what debt ceiling is about,” Corker said.

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