Senator Mitch McConnell rules out 2015 US government shutdown, debt default

US Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell holds a news conference on the day after he was re-elected to a sixth term to the US Senate, at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky on Nov 5, 2014.  -- PHOTO: REUTERS
US Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell holds a news conference on the day after he was re-elected to a sixth term to the US Senate, at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky on Nov 5, 2014.  -- PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US Senator Mitch McConnell, who is expected to become the Senate majority leader in January when Republicans take control of the chamber, has ruled out government shutdowns or any default on the national debt on his watch.

Republicans scored major gains in congressional elections and will have majorities in both houses when the new Congress takes office early in the new year.

"We're not going to be shutting down the government or defaulting on the national debt," Mr McConnell said in his first news conference on Wednesday since winning re-election.

Current government borrowing authority, which expires at the end of March, could be extended through this summer if the Treasury Department employs some "extraordinary" measures.

The debt is now hovering near US$18 trillion (S$23.3 trillion) and Congress will have to vote to extend borrowing authority sometime, maybe in late summer, before Treasury runs out of tools to borrow. Failing to do so would risk a default.

Asked whether he would insist on more deficit-reduction before going along with raising the debt ceiling, Mr McConnell noted that when the House of Representatives and Senate write their fiscal 2016 budget blueprints, there could be a "mechanism" for addressing this issue.

Before the press conference, Senator John Thune, a member of Mr McConnell's Republican leadership team, told Reuters that the administration's request next year to raise the debt limit "presents an opportunity to do some meaningful things ... in terms of addressing the debt".

He said it could come in the form of savings in major federal benefits programs and changes to the tax code. But he did not provide specifics.

On other issues, Mr McConnell said he would seek passage of bills to construct the Keystone oil pipeline that would run from Canada to the US Gulf of Mexico, which US President Barack Obama so far has refused to be permitted.

He said Republicans were "anxious" to consider international trade agreements if Mr Obama submits them and that he will challenge Obama initiatives, such as regulations reducing coal-fired power plant emissions.

"We will use the power of the purse to try to push back against this over-active bureaucracy," Mr McConnell said, specifically mentioning Mr Obama's "war on coal" that is aimed at controlling fossil fuel emissions linked to global climate change.

As expected, Mr McConnell also warned that he will move legislation to repeal parts of Mr Obama's landmark healthcare law.