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While you weren't looking, the next fight over the debt ceiling got started

  • The U.S. needs to raise its borrowing limit, and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin wants a "clean" bill without spending cuts attached.
  • Hitting the debt limit could throw markets into chaos and whack confidence in U.S. Treasurys.
  • House Republicans have been noncommittal about raising the debt ceiling.

Despite pressure from the White House, top House Republicans haven't committed to a no-strings-attached vote on raising the nation's borrowing limit before the August recess.

House Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday vowed only that lawmakers would raise the debt ceiling before the country actually hits it — an event that would plunge financial markets into turmoil if it occurred and shake confidence in U.S. Treasurys, long considered one of the safest investments in the world. Ryan did not rule out the possibility of tying debt limit negotiations to broader debate of the 2018 budget.

"I'm not foreclosing any option at this time," he said.

Mnuchin: Give me a clean bill. Congress: Whatever

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has repeatedly called for a so-called clean bill (one without spending-related strings attached) that lawmakers could pass before August. Since March, the Treasury has used extraordinary measures to meet its debt obligations. Many analysts believe that authority will be exhausted around October.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., conducts a news conference after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on June 7, 2017. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah., also appear.
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., conducts a news conference after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on June 7, 2017. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah., also appear.

But in recent congressional testimony, budget director Mick Mulvaney said that deadline could come several weeks sooner, because tax receipts are coming in more slowly than expected. And in a meeting between senior White House staff and conservative groups last month, officials warned that the deadline could even occur during the summer, according to two people with direct knowledge of the discussion. Mnuchin has not commented on any timing shift, instead emphasizing that Congress should act by August.

'We haven't set a date' on raising the limit

Several lawmakers have signaled that they are not in a rush, however. House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady of Texas said that August was "a good timetable to work toward" but lawmakers are still hashing out details.

"I think we should listen to our members — as we are — about what they want to see in this discussion on raising the debt limit, both from a timing standpoint, the length of it, and obviously whether there are some savings and efficiency reforms that should be part of the discussion," he told reporters Tuesday.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy punted questions about the debt ceiling to Mnuchin on Tuesday, after a meeting between President Donald Trump and Republican leadership at the White House. He did not reference a deadline for raising the limit.

"We didn't have a set date on that," McCarthy said. "So I will leave that to him."

Right wing: Cut spending first

The House Freedom Caucus has already made its position clear: The group of conservative lawmakers supports Mnuchin's request for action before August but said that any increase must be paired with spending cuts.

In recent years, debt ceiling debates have roiled Washington, and lawmakers already have a packed agenda, including negotiations over the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act and ongoing investigations over White House officials' ties to Russia.

Lawmakers have only about six legislative weeks left to clear their plates. On Tuesday, the Freedom Caucus took a position on that, too: It called for canceling the August recess.