Can a Clean Debt-Limit Hike Pass the Senate?

by Andrew Stiles

Senate Democrats, with the backing of the White House, are reportedly preparing to introduce a “clean” increase to the nation’s debt limit, which would likely last through the 2014 mid-terms. In order to pass such a measure, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) would likely have to convince every Democrat to support it, including a number of vulnerable incumbents from red states, and get at least six Republicans to join them in order to reach a 60-vote threshold. 

Senate minority whip John Cornyn (R., Texas) thinks this is “never going to happen,” as did Michael Steel, spokesman for House speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio). Recent history suggests that Republican support would be minimal. During the 2011 debt-limit showdown, 43 out of 47 Republican senators signed a letter opposing a clean increase. Of the four GOP senators who abstained – Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and Olympia Snowe (Maine) — only two are still in office. Senate GOP aides, however, seemed to think there was at least a possibility that Republican support for a clean increase would be sufficient to help pass it on the Senate floor; responses ranged from “probably,” to “maybe,” to “we’ll see.”

On the Democratic side, two senators — Joe Manchin (W. Va.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) — said in 2011 that they would not support a debt-limit increase without meaningful spending reforms attached. Reid has already forced Pryor and other red-state Democrats facing reelection in 2014 to cast a series of difficult votes defending Obamacare, and opposing popular items like the Vitter amendment to end Obamacare subsidies for members of Congress and their staff. Reid has succeeded in keeping his conference united thus far, but he could have a difficult time trying to convince Democrats such as Pryor, Mary Landrieu (La.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), and Mark Begich (Alaska) to vote for a clean debt-limit increase that less than one-third of Americans support. That said, a Democratic aide tells Yahoo News’ Chris Moody that all 54 Democrats would support a clean debt-limit hike.

Democrats apparently think that if they can somehow manage to get a clean debt-limit increase through the Senate, it would put intense political pressure on the House to follow suit. For that to happen, not only would Boehner have to bring the measure to the floor in the face of intense GOP opposition, but a significant number of Democrats would have to reverse the positions they took in 2011, when the House overwhelmingly rejected a clean debt-limit hike by a vote of 318–97, with 81 Democrats voting against.

Meanwhile, there is chatter among conservative lawmakers about the possibility of passing a clean, short-term (two-four week) increase to the debt limit. Conservative writer Erick Erickson backs the idea, and the White House on Monday signaled that they would accept a short-term debt-limit increase. A GOP aide who also supports the plan tells National Review Online that taking the debt limit off the table with a short-term increase would give Republicans “the strategic leverage we need” in the debate over the continuing resolution to fund the government. Doing so would highlight Reid’s refusal to take up individual spending bills passed by the House, the aide says, which many Republicans think puts Democrats in a politically untenable position. 

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