By Lauren Fox and Melanie Zanona, CNN
Republicans are digging in on their promise to vote against increasing the debt ceiling, lining up in defiance even as Democrats look for ways to pick off votes by attaching the measure to a must-pass spending bill.
When lawmakers return to Washington next week, they’ll be met with a pile of deadlines: 10 days to fund the government and just a matter of weeks to find a way to increase the nation’s borrowing limit before the country defaults on its debt, but so far there is no indication that the two parties are sitting down to iron out their differences. It’s raising the prospects for a fall of crisis on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers could be on the cusp of a shutdown and a credit default within a matter of weeks.
“Our leadership is going to have to get together for us to get together, and that hasn’t happened yet,” said the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Dick Shelby of Alabama.
Democrats could use a special budget process to pass the increase in the debt ceiling on their own with just a simple majority, but they’ve decided against it, opting instead to force the issue.
“This is for Trump debt,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip. “You would think they would at least stand up and pay for the administration of that last Republican President.”
Instead, Democrats will need 60 votes for their effort, and even members who often cross party lines are already declaring they won’t help Democrats this round.
“Nope, not gonna happen,” Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, said when asked if there was any way he’d vote to raise the debt ceiling.
For months, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been unequivocal: his caucus won’t support hiking the debt ceiling. In August, 46 Republican senators signed a letter declaring they wouldn’t help Democrats with the 60 votes needed to raise the debt ceiling.
“We should not default on our debts under any circumstances,” they wrote. “If Democrats threaten a default, it will only be because they refuse to vote for the debt ceiling increase necessitated by their own irresponsible spending.”
In a closed-door lunch, McConnell told his colleagues that Democrats would “own” the debt limit hike, according to a person who was in attendance, and so far McConnell’s seen few cracks in his conference.
“We don’t need to be spending the kind of money that the Democrats are spending, This is of their own making,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa. “This is up to them.”
The Republican defiance has only grown even as Democrats consider including the debt hike in their must-pass spending bill to fund the government, a move that could squeeze Republicans, especially those who hail from hurricane-ravaged states, where funding for disaster relief is crucial.
“I will wait and see how they squeeze,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, referring to the spending bill as a CR, for a continuing resolution, which keeps funding at current levels for a set time. “I think it is safe to say if they attach raising the debt limit to the CR, the CR is going to fail. It is not going to get 60 votes. … Democrats control their destiny on this.”
Democrats are eyeing other ways to pressure Republicans into raising the borrowing limit, including tacking other popular items — such as disaster aid and assistance for Afghan refugees — onto a debt ceiling hike paired with government funding. Democrats are betting that it would be a politically tough vote for Republicans to shut down the government while also opposing disaster relief, especially those who represent states damaged by Hurricane Ida.
But so far, even Republicans from Louisiana and Mississippi, which both experienced devastation from recent storms and would stand to benefit from emergency funding, are showing no signs they feel uncomfortable with the idea of opposing such a package.
Cassidy said he remains “committed to disaster aid” but needs to see if Democrats start adding “this and that, and that and this.” And Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, was even more unequivocal: “No. I am not voting to increase the debt ceiling,” he told CNN.
Meanwhile, across the Capitol, House Republicans are expected to be equally united in their opposition to increasing the debt ceiling, even as two members of GOP leadership — Minority Whip Steve Scalise and GOP Conference Vice Chair Mike Johnson — hail from Louisiana.
More than 100 House Republican lawmakers, including Johnson and Rep. Michael Guest of Mississippi, signed a letter late last month promising to vote against raising the debt ceiling “through a stand-alone bill, a continuing resolution, or any other vehicle.”
Republicans are brushing aside charges of hypocrisy from Democrats, who note that the GOP supported a debt ceiling hike under President Donald Trump and that most of the nation’s current debt was racked up under the former President. Still, Republicans think they will be on solid political ground back home if they link the debt ceiling increase to Democrats’ push to pass a massive $3.5 trillion economic bill.
There are still several factors that have to be worked out. Democrats haven’t decided for sure they’d tie the debt ceiling to the spending bill, a gamble they are keenly aware could trigger a government shutdown and hamper their effort to pass President Joe Biden’s infrastructure and economic agenda. And Republicans aren’t being asked to vote on anything yet. The pressure could always shift the dynamics.
But so far Republicans are largely defiant, predicting that they’d vote against a short-term spending bill if it meant raising the debt ceiling along with it.
“If you are going to do the debt limit, you need to do it on its own, separately, and it needs to be attached to something that brings spending under control,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida.
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CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.