By Steve Goldstein
The annual wrangling around the debt limit was set to disappear, pundits thought, since Republican control of both the executive and legislative branch would effectively make any showdown over such a silly exercise an own goal.
That’s the current view in the Trump White House at least.
“We’ve spent the money. The concept of the debt limit is somewhat of a ridiculous concept,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Friday. “I am hopeful that this something Congress addresses before the [summer] break. I think everybody understands we need to raise the debt limit, and that’s something we’re going to do.”
Quietly when everyone’s focus was on the health bill, Sen. Rob Portman dropped a bill that would force a dollar-for-dollar reduction in spending — over 10 years — for every dollar that the debt limit was raised.
That sort of legislation isn’t unique, but the fact the author was the mild-mannered Ohio Republican is.
Portman of course wasn’t elected on the wings of Trump, winning by about 21 percentage points versus the 8-point margin Trump had in the Buckeye State. But he is far from the most strident senator in the Republican caucus.
The debt limit was reset to roughly $19.9 trillion this month. Independent analysts say the government has until roughly October to lift that ceiling without risking a default.
Past precedent is that the debt ceiling gets raised by $1 trillion to $2 trillion at a time. Even the low end of Portman’s dollar-for-dollar formula means that roughly $90 billion of spending in the first year would have to be trimmed, assuming inflation of 2.2%.
Recall that President Donald Trump’s so-called skinny budget, which many have thought was incredibly austere, wouldn’t achieve that goal. Trump proposed raising military spending by exactly the amount he’d cut domestic non-entitlement spending. Even keeping defense, homeland security and veterans budgets flat — Trump proposed raising them — would require another $30 billion in cuts from what Trump has proposed.
That’s not to say Congress couldn’t send up some bill letting Trump lift the debt ceiling in some mechanistic manner, as they did for Obama. Congressional Republicans could turn to the Democrats in a way that wasn’t possible with the health-care plan.
But whether he or they want to play ball is another story.
The events of this week show Republicans have a hard time getting to a “yes” with each other, yet alone with Democrats.