Senate Republicans are disavowing former President Trump’s call to let the federal government default on its debts unless President Biden agrees to “massive” spending cuts, dismissing Trump’s suggestion as something far too risky to seriously consider.
The cold reception to Trump’s bold statement is the latest sign of the widening rift between Trump and his party’s Washington establishment.
While Trump maintains strong influence in the House, where he helped Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) nail down enough votes to be elected Speaker, it’s a different story in the Senate.
GOP senators largely ignored Trump’s participation in a CNN’s town hall Wednesday and later dismissed the former president’s claim that failing to raise the debt ceiling by next month’s deadline might not be a big deal.
“I don’t think anybody suggesting that ‘we have to do a default’ is wise policy, wise strategy for this country,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), adding that Trump “certainly doesn’t impact” her view.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) arrives for an all-senators briefing with Biden administration officials on Wednesday, February 15, 2023 to discuss unidentified objects recently shot down over the past week. (Greg Nash)
She argued it would be far more productive to encourage Biden and McCarthy to work together to reach a compromise rather than pushing a default as a viable option.
“Right now, the talks are going on with the top four and of course the White House, and now the staffs. What we want to do is encourage that every step of the way,” she said.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said “most people recognize we need to strike a deal here” and predicted that Trump’s impacts won’t get much traction among GOP lawmakers.
“I don’t think we want to go there with the potential consequences,” he said of a potential default.
Asked about Trump’s comments, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to the Senate GOP leadership team, said: “Nobody thinks default is a good idea. Nobody.”
McCarthy on Thursday distanced himself from Trump’s comments.
“The only thing I see right now is that the Republicans made sure default is not on the table. We’ve raised the debt limit,” he said, referring to the bill House Republicans passed last month to raise the debt ceiling to $1.5 trillion and cut spending by $4.8 trillion.
“The only person talking about default right now is President Biden. His actions, he’s ignored this problem, just like he’s ignored the border, that means more Americans are gonna die from fentanyl. You had 11,000 people just yesterday come across,” he said.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks to reporters following a meeting with President Biden, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to discuss the debit limit in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, May 9, 2023. (Greg Nash)
Those are much different tones than the one Trump struck at the CNN town hall, where he declared: “I say to the Republicans out there — congressmen, senators — if they don’t give you massive cuts, you’re gonna have to default.”
He went on to say that a federal default might not have as big an impact on the U.S. economy as experts predict.
Trump said the consequences of failing to extend the debt limit by the deadline “could be maybe nothing” or result in only “a bad week or a bad day.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), when asked about Trump’s comments, said: “Yeah, well, we can’t do a default but we should find a way to reach a compromise. That’s what you expect a president to do.”
Romney said Trump is rooting for a default because it’s in his political interests.
“If there were a default, the one person who might be tempted to celebrate politically would be Donald Trump, because he’d say, ‘If I were president, this would have never happened,’” he said.
Romney said Trump’s CNN town hall appearance showed a person “untethered to the truth and untethered to the constitutional order.”
He also criticized Trump for saying he would pardon the people who invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and for not expressing support for Ukraine in its war against Russia.
“A crime is a crime. I believe in juries, and people who’ve been convicted of a crime ought to pay the penalty that the jury or the court imposed and [that] they agreed to, in some cases,” Romney said.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) arrives to the Capitol for a series of votes on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (Annabelle Gordon)
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said he wasn’t that surprised that Trump advised Republicans to let the nation default.
“It doesn’t surprise me he’d say that,” Cassidy said. “The president is a candidate trying to run on a very populist base, and I think he feels like that will position him in place he gets more votes, and I think he’ll say whatever he needs to, to get more votes.”
Cassidy said he wasn’t sure how it would influence Trump’s allies in the House.
“I don’t have their temperature,” he said.
A Republican senator who requested anonymity to comment candidly on Trump said senators would ignore the advice.
“I don’t know about the House, but I don’t think there are a lot of senators who wait for his instructions,” the lawmaker said.
But the senator expressed uncertainty whether Trump might push House conservatives to take a harder line in the talks.
“I don’t know,” the senator said. “We need to be working together.”
House Republicans mostly dodged Trump’s call to let the nation default if Democrats refuse to agree to massive cuts, but they were less critical of Trump’s comments than some of their Senate Republican colleagues.
Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), the vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, said a default is what House Republicans are trying to avoid.
“Obviously, if there’s not a deal, then there’s default. That’s what we’re all trying to prevent,” he said.
He downplayed Trump’s influence by noting, “obviously, he’s not part of this negotiation.”
Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) said he views Trump’s willingness to let the nation default as campaign rhetoric.
“I forget who said it, but you know, you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose. … Candidates talk about things differently than people who are trying to get to a deal,” he said, referring to the political maxim made famous by late New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.
Mychael Schnell and Emily Brooks contributed.