Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) faces the challenging task of having to help steer crucial legislation to raise the debt ceiling past Senate conservatives who are calling for amendments to the bill and threatening to delay it for days on end.
The bill is expected to get more than 40 Senate Democratic votes, which means it would likely need at least 10-20 “yes” votes from Senate Republicans to get to President Biden’s desk before the June 5 deadline set by Treasury Department Secretary Janet Yellen.
McConnell on Sunday came out strongly in favor of the deal negotiated between Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) but he faces a brewing rebellion on his right flank.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has threatened to use “every procedural tool at my disposal” to slow down the bill. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is demanding a vote on his “conservative alternative,” which would cut total federal spending by $545 billion over two years.
Lee on Tuesday unleashed a torrent of criticism directed at the bill, which he argues “simply does not do what its proponents claim it does — not even close.”
“It’s time to go back to the drawing board or, even better, go back to what the House already passed,” he said, referring to the Limit, Save, Grow Act, which would cut $4.8 trillion from the future deficit.
The big question looming over Washington is whether Lee will drag out the Senate debate on the bill past the June 5 deadline, which would risk a default and severe turmoil in the financial markets.
Lee declared last week that a bill without substantial spending and budgetary reforms “will not face smooth sailing in the Senate.”
McConnell has pledged the nation will not default on its debts but he also has a responsibility as leader to help Republican colleagues who want to amend the legislation, which could delay it past the June 5 “X-date.”
“The Senate must act swiftly and pass this agreement without unnecessary delay,” he said in a statement Sunday.
Paul has made clear he won’t vote for any bill to raise the debt limit that doesn’t balance the federal budget in five years — something that couldn’t be done without more than $500 billion in future cuts.
“To us, it doesn’t look like cuts at all. In fact, spending will go up every year under that debt plan,” he said of the Biden-McCarthy deal.
But Paul says he’s not going to bog down the legislation in procedural amendments if he gets a vote on his plan, which would enact two years of caps on total federal spending — including for Social Security and Medicare — and let Congress decide at a later date to meet those targets.
“Mandatory spending is enormous; it’s over half of the spending every year. It’s going up at five percent a year,” he said.
Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) say they also oppose the debt limit deal.
“This bill leaves us with trillions more in debt & no clear path to less inflation or a balanced budget. I appreciate the work @SpeakerMcCarthy did to try & negotiate a good deal when @JoeBiden refused to engage, but I cannot support this bill,” Scott tweeted Tuesday.
Scott, who challenged McConnell for his job in November, called on his leaders to support efforts to rewrite parts of the legislation.
“If this passes the House, the Senate must take amendment votes and Senate Republican Leadership must stand with everyone working to improve this bill,” he wrote.
Braun told reporters that he wouldn’t vote for the bill without major changes and called for amendments.
The Indiana senator, who is running for governor next year, said he wants to offer an amendment to the bill that would put penalties in place if Congress doesn’t pass appropriations bills on time.
The legislation already includes a provision backed by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) to cut discretionary spending across the board by 1 percent if Congress fails to enact its appropriations bills on time and instead defaults to a stopgap spending measure.
But Braun told reporters that he will not object to speeding up the debate on the debt limit deal if he and his Republican colleagues are allowed to offer amendments.
He acknowledged that the amendments he, Paul and others favor aren’t likely to pass.
“You want amendments because you know they’re not going to pass, let’s be real here. The Democrats and the neo-cons in our party are going to get this thing across the finish line, but I want the process of being able to amend it. To me, that is a step in the right direction, because this all gives information to the public in terms of what could be done, even though it doesn’t get incorporated,” Braun explained.
Other Republican senators are on the fence about how to vote, including Sens. John Cornyn (Texas), an adviser to the Republican leadership team, John Kennedy (La.), and Mike Rounds (S.D.).
“From my perspective, there’s not really anything to support until the House passes the bill. I’m waiting to see what the House sends us,” Cornyn said.
Paul and other senators who want changes predict that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and McConnell will give them votes to change the deal in hopes of speeding up the floor debate.
“They won’t do it out of generosity but they may want to do it out of wanting to leave town for the weekend,” Paul said.