Freedom Caucus leader warns: Don’t attach Harvey aid to debt-ceiling increase
The leader of an influential group of House conservatives warned GOP leaders Thursday not to attach aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey to an increase in the federal debt limit, a stance that could constrain Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) as he tries to win support over the coming weeks for several controversial must-pass measures.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said attaching Harvey aid to a debt-ceiling increase would be a “terrible idea” that would be “conflating two very different issues.”
“The Harvey relief would pass on its own, and to use that as a vehicle to get people to vote for a debt ceiling is not appropriate,” he said in an interview. “That sends all the wrong message: ‘Let’s go ahead and increase the debt ceiling, and by the way, while we’re doing it let’s go ahead and spend another $15, $20 billion?’ That’s not to undercut the importance of Harvey relief. We’re going to fund Harvey relief without a doubt, but I think it just sends the wrong message when you start attaching it to the debt ceiling.”
Congressional leaders have not yet announced specific plans to address the Harvey crisis, though discussions on an aid package are underway, and Texas lawmakers are pressing for swift action. A senior White House official said Wednesday an initial bill could be drafted as soon as next week.
Lawmakers return to Washington on Tuesday after a five-week summer recess, facing pressure to act not only on Harvey aid but also on several crucial measures that require action before month-end deadlines. They include extending government funding to avert an Oct. 1 government shutdown, reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and raising the debt ceiling to avoid a disastrous federal default.
The Treasury Department told Congress in July it would have to act on the debt limit by Sept. 29. On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a CNBC interview that the deadline could creep up by “a couple of days” due to Harvey-related spending.
Meadows and other staunch conservatives have long opposed a “clean” debt-ceiling increase, preferring to attach measures that would limit the growth of federal spending, even though the Trump administration is pushing for a clean extension. Meadows said Thursday he’d like a measure that would index the debt limit to growth in the economy; another conservative leader, Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) of the Republican Study Committee, said this week that he would support efforts to constrain Medicaid spending.
“Having some guardrails for fiscal responsibility is certainly important and to just ignore it would not be prudent,” Meadows said.
A spokesman for Ryan declined to comment Thursday on Meadows’s remarks. Ryan’s office said earlier this week that the House stood ready to act to help Harvey victims pending a funding request from the Trump administration.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, aren’t likely to settle on a way forward or make any specific decisions on how to proceed until they meet in person at their regularly scheduled policy luncheon Tuesday or Wednesday, according to a senior aide familiar with their plans.
That timeline reflects how the more deliberative Senate works, the aide said, rather than any resistance to delivering federal aid: “We’re all on the same page about what we need to do.”
Meadows said Thursday that he and other hard-line conservatives could support attaching Harvey aid to a stopgap government spending measure that is expected to be drafted next month. That bill would extend current federal spending into December, allowing time for further negotiations over key GOP priorities — including the Mexican border wall demanded by President Trump.
The border wall is unlikely to prompt a showdown in September, Meadows said, despite Trump’s threats at a recent campaign rally that opposition to its funding could prompt a government shutdown. “I’m supportive of the wall and putting the wall funding in [the stopgap], but from a pragmatic standpoint, it will get stripped out in the Senate,” he said.
Meadows also said that he did not expect a major fight over whether the Harvey aid package would be offset with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.
“My whole focus has always been, let’s make sure the relief efforts are about the relief efforts,” he said. “Let’s not put everybody’s special project in there, and let’s not fund fish hatcheries in Alaska like we did with Sandy relief.” (A small portion of the $50 billion Sandy bill passed in 2013 funded relief for federally declared fishery disasters elsewhere in the United States, including Alaska.)
“Obviously we would prefer offsets,” Meadows added. “Generally speaking, though, to demand offsets when you have this magnitude of emergency spending is not something that I believe will get done. I mean, you know me: I’m a fiscal conservative, and I would prefer to have offsets, but … let’s put it this way: The focus has not been on the offsets as much as it has been on getting relief to those affected.”