McConnell faces GOP pushback on debt deal


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is facing pushback over a deal announced Tuesday by congressional leaders that paves the way for Democrats to sidestep a filibuster and raise the debt ceiling.

Under the agreement, the House and Senate will first pass a bill that prevents cuts to Medicare and also tees up a subsequent debt ceiling bill to pass by a simple majority in the Senate.

The legislation is expected to hit a procedural hurdle Thursday that will require 10 GOP members to help advance the debt deal. That will pave the way for a bill to increase the debt ceiling that Democrats can pass on their own.

But McConnell is sparking resistance within his own caucus both from conservatives, who raised concerns during a closed-door lunch, and GOP senators who previously helped advance a debt ceiling deal in October.

“There are always very diverse points of view within our conference on these types of issues,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, acknowledged when asked about the pushback at the lunch.

Republicans were describing the measure Tuesday as setting up a one-time exception to the filibuster. Though a GOP aide noted that the Senate routinely has a fast-track process for other issues like arms sales and trade deals, the debt agreement was drawing criticism from conservatives who don’t want to lift a finger to help Democrats extend the nation’s borrowing limit.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), in a tweet, called it a “Frankenstein bill” that would “neuter the Senate.” While Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) warned that Republicans should do nothing that helps Democrats raise the debt ceiling.

“[Democrats] should at least own the responsibility for crushing debt they are necessitating. Republicans should not participate in racking up that debt, which is harming people across the country,” Cruz said.

Democrats have pointed out that the debt ceiling needs to be lifted to cover bills signed by both President Biden and former President Trump, and that Democrats provided votes to suspend the borrowing limit during the Trump years.

McConnell, during a closed-door caucus lunch, walked his caucus through the debt ceiling agreement, pitching it as a win for the party. He touted it as allowing the GOP to put the focus on Biden-era spending, which McConnell sees as a more potent line of attack heading into 2022, as well a victory for Republicans because Democrats will have to raise the debt ceiling to a specific number. 

“I think this is in the best interest of the country by avoiding default. I think it is also in the best interest of Republicans,” McConnell told reporters following the lunch.

It’s not entirely clear, however, how many Senate Republicans agree with McConnell, who voiced confidence his party will have the 10 votes on Thursday. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, acknowledged that preventing Medicare cuts is how the deal is being sold to Republicans but, "we’ll have to see how many people bought it."

At least two GOP senators who helped advance the debt ceiling agreement in October said they were either opposed or likely to be “no” votes.

“I wouldn't vote for it,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who helped advance a short-term debt hike earlier this year. “I just think we ought to keep our word with the base.”

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), another one of the 11 GOP senators, said that he was “leaning” toward opposing the deal.

“I just think they can do it with reconciliation,” he said. “They've known that from day one.”

The deal is a sharp U-turn from October, when the debt cliff sparked a weeks-long standoff between McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that resulted in fierce criticism of the GOP leader from Trump and members of his own caucus.

Trump on Tuesday continued his criticism of McConnell, including over the debt ceiling. And McConnell faced, and responded to, pushback during the lunch, according to senators in attendance.

“There’s a lot of disagreement about the proposal,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said about the discussion within the Senate GOP lunch, adding that people spoke in both opposition and support of the agreement.

“A lot of people explained [voting] 'no' really well, really convincingly,” Cramer added about the GOP discussion.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) added that there was a “very robust discussion about this lunch.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) predicted to reporters that there wouldn’t be the GOP votes to help pave the way for a simple majority debt ceiling vote, while Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said he was still reviewing the agreement but appeared skeptical of the argument made by leadership that it was really about preventing Medicare cuts.

“It depends on your perspective. It’s clearly two. And I'm not sure it's very wise to conflate those issues. It’s like comparing apples and eagles,” he said.

Despite the vocal opposition from some conservatives, several GOP senators signaled that they are inclined to support the agreement setting up the debt ceiling vote.

“People can either vote for it or against the Medicare cuts. ….To me that’s the question. I’m not going to let those cuts to doctors and hospitals go into effect,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Blunt and Thune both indicated that they are likely to support it. Capito added that she hasn’t made a final decision but that she supports letting Democrats raise the debt ceiling on their own by a simple majority.

“I think that Sen. McConnell has tried to work with Sen. Schumer to get a process … reforming the procedures that can be done on a 50-vote threshold. So I support that as well,” she said.

After 11 Republicans helped Democrats advance a short-term debt hike in early October, McConnell publicly released a letter to Biden warning that “I will not provide such assistance again if your all-Democrat government drifts into another avoidable crisis.”

McConnell, asked if he had violated that statement, argued that the deal stood by his own red line.

“The red line is intact,” he said. “The red line is that you have a simple majority party-line vote on the debt ceiling. That’s exactly where we will end up.”

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