Some Republicans Don’t Want To Raise The Debt Limit — Period
WASHINGTON — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and President Joe Biden are in a standoff over the debt ceiling, but they agree that failing to raise it could be catastrophic.
A handful of House Republicans, however, are very skeptical that stakes are so high — and their stubbornness illustrates the risk of McCarthy’s bet that he can unify his party to twist Biden’s arm.
“My position is that you don’t have to raise the debt ceiling if you bring your spending under control,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) told HuffPost on Tuesday.
Because the government spends more than it brings in through taxes, it needs to go into debt, by selling securities, in order to pay for its expenses — ranging from federal employee salaries to Social Security payments for retirees.
Congress raised the debt limit three times under President Donald Trump without much controversy, and again in 2021, when Democrats still controlled the House. The government reached the current $31 trillion debt limit in January, and since then the Treasury Department has said it’s using “extraordinary measures,” such as suspending investments in federal retirement funds, to avoid defaulting on payments.
“Failure to meet the government’s obligations would cause irreparable harm to the U.S. economy, the livelihood of all Americans, and global financial stability,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned in a January letter asking lawmakers to raise the debt limit.
This week, McCarthy outlined to his colleagues a proposal that would lift the debt limit until next year, cut federal spending, and impose “work requirements” on federal safety net programs that help people afford food and health care. Because Democrats control the Senate and the White House, the bill is symbolic — McCarthy’s goal is to show Biden that he’s got the near-unanimous backing of his conference for spending cuts.
There are 222 Republicans in the House and it takes 218 votes to pass a bill, meaning McCarthy can lose only four Republicans if all Democrats vote no, as expected.
Biggs, along with Reps. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) and Eric Burlison (R-Mo.), suggested this week that they didn’t agree with the assumption underlying McCarthy’s strategy — that the debt ceiling has to go up, or that they were obligated to make sure it does.
“I did not run for office to raise the debt ceiling,” Burlison told Punchbowl News. “I think people from back home are sick and tired of this place just wasting their taxpayer dollars.”
Burchett told HuffPost he is conceivably open to voting for a debt limit increase, but it would take some doing.
“I’m not there yet,” he said Tuesday. “I don’t like raising the debt ceiling. I didn’t vote to raise it under Trump. And right now that’s where I’m at. But I’d like to see some details of all the stuff everybody’s talking about because it’s very fluid right now, it seems.”
Burchett kept to the Republican insistence on comparing the spending and debt of the U.S. to that of a family, even as economists say it’s at best an inapt comparison because families don’t have the same responsibilities as countries or the obligation to exist in perpetuity.
Burchett said when he sends his daughter to the grocery store to spend $5, he doesn’t let her spend $10 instead.
“And that’s basically what this is about,” he said. “We just keep spending more and more, and at some point it’s going to bust, and I would rather it not bust under my watch.”
Despite his opposition, Burchett was skeptical that the ceiling would not be raised in time to avoid an economic catastrophe. This, so far, also has been the attitude of financial markets — even after McCarthy warned Wall Street on Monday that Biden was bumbling toward “the first default in our nation’s history.”
“They’re not going to let that happen, dude,” Burchett said. “It’ll be midnight, everybody’s holding hands and something will happen. It always does.”
Biggs is a recent former chair of the House Freedom Caucus, the far-right group whose members only reluctantly supported McCarthy for speaker in January. He was one of six Republicans who voted “present” when McCarthy finally won the gavel, even after he granted individual lawmakers the power to force a no-confidence vote in the speaker at any time.
If the Treasury Department can’t borrow any more money, Biggs, a former lottery winner, suggested the government could figure out how to partially meet its obligations by making use of incoming tax revenue — which arrives in irregular, somewhat unpredictable amounts — and rescinding unspent funds previously appropriated by Congress.
“Let’s try that just once. I’m just begging for one month of that,” Biggs said. “Can we just for one month just say, ‘Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re not going to spend more than we bring in?’”
Treasury officials have said they lack the legal authority to pick and choose among competing spending priorities Congress has already put into law.
Still, Biggs said he was not a “hard no” on the debt limit proposal McCarthy was putting together.
“I’m trying to keep an open mind,” he said.