Congress May Need to Raise Debt Limit Sooner, Budget Director Says -- Update

By Kate Davidson and Richard RubinFeaturesDow Jones Newswires

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said Wednesday that the date by which Congress would need to raise the debt limit may come sooner than the administration had anticipated.

"My understanding is that the receipts currently are coming in a little bit slower than expected and you may soon hear from [Treasury Secretary Steven] Mnuchin regarding a change in the date," Mr. Mulvaney told a House panel. Mr. Mnuchin is testifying before the House Ways and Means Committee this afternoon.

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A 16-month suspension of the federal borrowing limit expired in March, and the Treasury Department began employing emergency cash-conservation steps soon thereafter to avoid breaching the debt ceiling.

Analysts expected those steps would allow Treasury to keep paying its bills until this fall. But that estimate is dependent on the strength of Treasury receipts over spring and summer months.

Mr. Mulvaney said the White House doesn't yet have a final stated policy for the legislative approach it would like Congress to take on raising the debt ceiling. He said he met with Mr. Mnuchin for an hour Tuesday to discuss the issue, and the two are waiting for National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn to return from his overseas trip with President Donald Trump to continue those discussions.

Raising the statutory debt limit will present challenging internal politics for Republicans, who have frequently opposed such increases or insisted on conditions.

The exact timing will be tricky, too. Congress is scheduled to be on recess for most of August, creating a relatively short window for action either before or after.

Another issue facing Congress is the administration's interest in possibly extending the 10-year budget scoring window for its tax and fiscal plan as a way to getting around congressional rules that forbid bigger deficits after a decade.

That move might help Republicans get their proposed tax and fiscal policies to comply with congressional budgeting rules that would otherwise limit them.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) floated the idea last month to overcome obstacles posed by the process known as reconciliation, which lets a tax cut pass on a majority Senate vote but prevents additions to long-run deficits.

Mr. Mulvaney told a House panel that Congress should be able to extend the window without changing the law. "We are exploring the possibility of also looking a little further out, especially when you start to talk about changes in mandatory spending," he told lawmakers at a House Budget Committee meeting.

The benefits of changes to mandatory spending often don't show up within the first decade, he said. "I think it's a more reasonable way to look at the budget window," he said.

Mandatory spending, including programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps, aren't subject to annual appropriation. A longer budget window could let Republicans get fiscal credit for proposals that are enacted now and then are phased in and don't take effect for many years in the future.

Mr. Mulvaney also insisted the administration wasn't double-counting the revenue that it is claiming from faster economic growth in its budget proposal. He said the tax plan itself would be revenue neutral because the administration would limit tax breaks.

That seems to suggest a significant shift for the administration, which has repeatedly said that it is backing huge planned tax cuts and that growth caused by such cuts would offset some of the fiscal cost of the tax plan. The administration hasn't identified enough limits on tax breaks to offset its tax-rate cuts.

The budget director also defended the administration's decision to leave Social Security and Medicare largely untouched in a budget proposal released this week, adding he was skeptical officials could balance the budget.

"It's probably the last time," he said. "It would be very difficult in the future to do that because of the role those programs do play in our future spending."

The White House spending blueprint released Tuesday imposes deep cuts to mandatory spending programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, disability insurance and student loans. The proposal also projects tax cuts would generate significant economic growth and enough revenue to help eliminate the deficit over the next decade.

Mr. Mulvaney said this week the budget was designed around President Trump's campaign promises, including his commitment to boost spending for the military and his pledge not to cut Social Security and Medicare.

But deficit hawks have already criticized the plan for refusing to tackle those two items, which are viewed as the two biggest drivers of government spending.

"That means in 10 years we are going to have to look at Social Security, Medicare, again look at Medicaid perhaps, to be responsible and sustainable again because those three programs are eating up so much of our budget," said Rep. Todd Rokita (R., Ind.).

Rep. Tom Cole (R., Okla.) added, "That math can't be sustained, and it will crowd out eventually defense and other important areas."

Mr. Mulvaney acknowledged lawmakers would be "hard-pressed" to address the country's long-term debt problem without also tackling mandatory spending programs.

Republican lawmakers praised the administration's efforts to balance the budget, but raised concerns about cuts to regional economic development programs and medical research, and a plan to overhaul the air-traffic control system.

Mr. Cole said proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were "penny-wise and pound-foolish."

"Sometime in the president's term you will have a pandemic," he said. "Cutting the CDC I think leaves you very vulnerable and the American people very vulnerable."

He also defended the budget's rosy economic projections, which assume sustained economic 3% growth starting in 2021, a much faster pace than the Congressional Budget Office has forecast.

Write to Kate Davidson at and Richard Rubin at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 24, 2017 14:25 ET (18:25 GMT)