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Arkansas delegation backs debt ceiling bill

by Alex Thomas | June 1, 2023 at 4:24 a.m.
From left: U.S. Reps. Rick Crawford, French Hill, Bruce Westerman and Steve Womack, all R-Arkansas.

WASHINGTON -- Arkansas' delegates in the U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday in support of a legislative package that includes a debt ceiling suspension and spending restrictions.

Republican Reps. Rick Crawford, French Hill, Steve Womack and Bruce Westerman joined colleagues from both parties in passing the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the byproduct of negotiations between the Biden administration and House Republican leaders.

The House's vote coupled with the necessary passage by the Senate are crucial actions concerning the United States' ability to meet its financial obligations. The country reached its debt limit in January, triggering the Treasury Department to take "extraordinary measures" to prevent a default.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned lawmakers her department will not have sufficient resources to meet obligations past Monday if Congress fails to suspend or raise the debt ceiling.

President Joe Biden and House Republican leaders on Saturday announced a deal. The 99-page legislative text was released Sunday, starting a 72-hour countdown for House members to read the measure in anticipation of Wednesday's vote.

As Westerman spoke to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, he flipped through a copy of the bill highlighted with his handwritten annotations.

"I think I was up till midnight not just reading it, but highlighting it, doing research," the Hot Springs congressman recalled about his Sunday evening.

"I was pleasantly surprised with what's in the bill. In fact, if you go through it section by section, you're going to see that pretty much every section is a win for conservatives."

The measure would suspend the debt limit until January 2025, ensuring the Treasury Department can continue covering existing obligations for the next 18 months. The bill additionally establishes limits on discretionary spending for the next two fiscal years and rescinds unspent coronavirus response dollars and some IRS enforcement funds.

The deal incorporates other legislation aimed at expediting the permitting process for energy projects. The related provision includes designating a single lead agency for environmental reviews and setting shorter timelines for completing related assessments. The House approved such permitting changes earlier this year; Westerman, the House Natural Resources Committee chairman, played a leading role in putting together the broader Lower Energy Costs Act.

Westerman said the debt ceiling package has "no bigger win" than the permitting language.

"When you get into the guts of the bill, there's really a lot in here that conservatives can be proud of," he added.

Republicans successfully fought for changes to federal nutrition programs, including new work requirements for adults receiving food assistance. The Congressional Budget Office estimates Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program changes would increase direct spending by $2.1 billion over the next decade because of additional people receiving benefits, but Republican leaders contend the agency put forward an incorrect estimate by double counting recipients.

According to the CBO, the entire legislative package would result in deficit reductions of $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.

Hill -- who has fostered relationships with McCarthy and top negotiator Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C. -- said Republican leaders knew they would have to address the debt ceiling when the GOP took control of the House in January. Republicans have argued congressional Democrats failed to act on the debt ceiling when the party had majority status in both the Senate and House.

"What the speaker asked all of us to do in the House was collaborate with each other on what would be the top things that House Republicans would like to see changed in the budget process, the regulatory process to accompany a sensible and responsible debt ceiling increase," the Little Rock congressman said.

House Republicans passed their own plan -- the Limit, Save, Grow Act -- in April while waiting for discussions with Biden and his team.

"It's still the only part of government that proposed a debt ceiling increase with reforms," Hill said.

Crawford is not a fan of the compromise, arguing congressional Democrats should have addressed the debt ceiling in last year's $1.7 trillion spending measure. In an interview with the Democrat-Gazette, the Jonesboro congressman said lawmakers had three options: the legislative package, a clean debt ceiling increase with no spending changes, or a default.

"Do you want to say, 'I voted to raise the debt limit with no conditions'? Do you want to say 'I voted to default?'" he said. "No, I don't want to be in that position at all."

Crawford expressed disdain for the debt ceiling, arguing the United States should have a constitutional amendment requiring the federal government to either have a balanced budget or establish spending limitations. The United States and Denmark are the only two countries to have a debt ceiling; the United States created its limit in 1917 as a way to avoid approving issued debt.

"The reality is neither of these three choices were good, but the best choice we could make was to not default and take some spending cuts," Crawford said.

The caps on discretionary spending would be in place for the next two years, which concerns Womack. The congressman expressed disappointment about limits to defense spending -- citing risks of creating vulnerabilities in national security from this move -- and Congress' ongoing inaction in addressing mandatory spending.

"As a result of that, we will still be visiting this issue in 2025 just as we are today," the Rogers lawmaker said.

Womack has introduced legislation in multiple Congresses for creating a national commission to study policies for balancing the national budget within a decade. He compared the concept to the 2010 National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which explored deficit reduction.

"That being said, to be able to get savings and move in that direction I think is very important in exchange for paying our nation's bills," Womack said concerning the current legislation. "I think it makes voting for this measure much more palatable than the way it began."

Womack is anticipating how the debt ceiling package will affect his responsibilities as a senior House Appropriations Committee member. Appropriators will face challenges in securing enough votes to pass legislation through their committee; 71 Republicans voted against the debt ceiling package with many arguing the spending language did not go far enough.

"We've got members on our committee that come from the right side of our caucus," Womack acknowledged.

Crawford's next challenge involves a new farm bill, a sweeping agriculture measure to replace a statute set to expire in September. The Congressional Research Service in February estimated more than 80% of the next farm bill's budget will go toward nutrition assistance programs.

Crawford, a House Agriculture Committee member, said he hopes the debt ceiling package lays a "conservative foundation" for the next legislation.

"A lot of people might think 'conservative farm bill' is a mutually exclusive term. Not necessarily," he said. "If we start from the right position, we can do a heck of a lot better than what people expect in this environment if we do it right. I think this is a step in that direction."

The Senate will consider the House package in the coming days. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have encouraged their colleagues to support the legislation.

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