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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

GOP demands for more Pentagon money slow debt limit bill in Senate

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) walks to a press conference after the House passed the debt limit bill, on Capitol Hill, Washington, on May 31, 2023. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

By Carl Hulse

The bipartisan bill to suspend the federal debt limit and impose spending caps encountered a new set of obstacles in the Senate on Thursday as a group of Republican defense hawks raised objections to Pentagon funding levels they said were too low, threatening to delay passage of a plan that must be enacted by Monday to avoid a government default.

Despite warnings from leaders of both parties that the Senate needed to act swiftly, a handful of Republicans took to the floor to assail the military spending in the measure negotiated between Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden and demand that their concerns be addressed before it could be passed.

“To my House colleagues, I can’t believe you did this,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., accusing the architects of the measure of undercutting the military at a time of rising threats from Russia and China. “This budget is a win for China.”

The concerns threw the timetable for Senate action into flux, with some lawmakers saying a vote could come Thursday evening but officials cautioning approval might not come until Friday at the earliest.

The agreement, which was approved overwhelmingly by the House on Wednesday night, would increase Pentagon spending to $388 billion for next year, a 3% raise, when many domestic programs were targeted for cuts in the plan. But GOP backers of higher spending for the military argued the package fell far short of what was needed.

“I just have to say that the fact that this is being called a victory by some people on our side of the aisle is absolutely inaccurate,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who called the funding level “woefully inadequate.”

Graham and others said that at a minimum, they wanted a commitment that Congress would later move on a supplemental funding bill to beef up the spending, although this would in effect reduce the savings Republicans had hoped to achieve through their debt limit leverage.

“We know that this budget is not adequate to the global threats that we face,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the senior Republican on the full Appropriations Committee. “An emergency supplemental must be coming our way.”

The opposition erupted almost immediately after Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, warned that the Senate needed to move quickly and make no changes to the agreement to clear it for Biden’s signature by Monday. He admonished lawmakers not to engage in brinkmanship before the so-called X-date of June 5, when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said the government will run out of cash to pay its bills.

“Time is a luxury the Senate does not have if we want to prevent default,” Schumer said. “June 5 is less than four days away. At this point, any needless delay or any last-minute holdups would be an unnecessary and even dangerous risk.”

Even as the deal migrated across the Capitol, the effects of the debt limit continued to pinch. The Treasury announced Thursday that it would delay auctions of three-month and six-month “bills” — short-term debt that the government no longer has room to take on until the borrowing cap is suspended.

Multiple senators have said they want to propose amendments to the bill, which would suspend the $31.4 trillion debt ceiling until January 2025 while cutting spending on domestic programs. They have the ability to slow the measure procedurally if they are denied the opportunity.

Senators were negotiating which amendments would be allowed on the floor, but Schumer was determined to defeat them. Any changes would force the measure back to the House, where no action would be likely to occur before the default deadline.

“Any change to this bill that forces us to send it back to the House would be entirely unacceptable,” he said. “It would almost guarantee default.”

Among those seeking votes is Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who Thursday called for stripping a provision from the legislation that would expedite the approval of an oil pipeline in West Virginia.

“I support improving the permitting process for all energy projects,” Kaine said. “But Congress putting its thumb on the scale so that one specific project doesn’t have to comply with the same process as everyone else is the definition of unfair and opens the door to corruption.”

After driving much of the legislative agenda the previous two years, the Senate left negotiating on the debt limit to Biden and McCarthy, whose demand for spending cuts and other policy changes brought the country to the brink of default. Nearly all Republican senators signed a letter backing McCarthy in the effort. As a result, senators had little influence over the negotiations and are now being forced to approve legislation they did not help shape. It is leaving some frustrated.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, praised McCarthy’s efforts but said senators had no obligation to simply rubber-stamp the deal and deserved opportunities to change it.

“We weren’t a party to the agreement,” he said. “Why should we be bound by the strict terms of that agreement? The Senate has not had a say in the process so far.”

But Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, urged his fellow Republicans to back the plan.

“Last night, an overwhelming majority of our House colleagues voted to pass the agreement Speaker McCarthy reached with President Biden,” he said. “In doing so, they took an urgent and important step in the right direction for the health of our economy and the future of our country.”

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