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Democrats' Pretend Debt Limit Fight Democrats' Pretend Debt Limit Fight

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Democrats' Pretend Debt Limit Fight

A view of the Capitol on January 27, 2014 in Washington.(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Senate Democrats are throwing rhetorical punches at Republicans over the debt ceiling, warning them not to demand spending cuts or other concessions. But this time, there’s no GOP opponent in the ring.

With Treasury predicting that the limit will have to be raised in coming days, Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray has made a mission of warning Republicans against mounting a fight. The Democrat from Washington state has issued statement after statement, written op-eds, sent letters to her colleagues, and led her party’s charge. She’s holding a hearing Tuesday focused on moving from crisis to crisis.

“The more time Republicans spend dreaming up their latest debt-limit wish list, the closer they are pushing workers and the economy toward another completely unnecessary crisis,” she said in a statement last week.

 

Yet, with the very real possibility of retaking the Senate in November, Republicans have not committed to making demands in exchange for increasing the $17 trillion debt limit. They have floated the possibility of changing the Affordable Care Act or green-lighting the Keystone XL pipeline as possible concessions, but they have articulated no plan to achieve those aims.

“Here’s the reality—and that is that we were badly burned by the shutdown of the government,” Sen. John McCain said. “If it hadn’t have been for Obamacare coming to the fore, it would have had even more impact. So Republicans are nervous about another showdown.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Budget Committee and a fiscal hawk who opposed the budget agreement, also doesn’t see a concrete concession emerging for Republicans.

“I don’t know that there’s a firm commitment on what steps we can take to improve our financial condition as part of any kind of debt ceiling increase,” Sessions said.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the chamber’s No. 3 Republican, told Bloomberg recently that there would probably be enough Republicans to vote with Democrats on a clean debt-ceiling measure.

So, why are Senate Democrats—and Murray in particular—picking this fight?

For one, Democrats are skeptical of the apparent Republican thaw over the debt limit.

“The last thing we need to do with a fragile recovery is rattle sabers about debt ceilings and whether we’re going to extend the debt ceiling,” said Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. “We saw that that didn’t work last time.”

Democrats have good reason to be skeptical. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has called for attaching a spending cut to the debt limit, and House Speaker John Boehner has said a clean debt ceiling couldn’t pass the House. Said Murray: “The American people are sick and tired of Republicans playing games with our economic recovery, and Democrats have made it clear that Republicans don’t get to demand a ransom simply for allowing Congress to do its job.”

Democrats are mindful of what a united GOP front in both chambers can achieve.

In 2011, conservatives won the Budget Control Act, which resulted in across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration, a devastating blow for Democrats.

Since then, however, Republicans have split over funding for Obamacare, which led to the government shutdown and debt-ceiling fights late last year. Senate Democrats came to view their approach—an outright refusal to negotiate over the debt ceiling—as a clear political and policy winner, a wedge to divide the GOP, and some Republicans give that calculus credibility.

“Our constituents expect us to rein in spending to the point where obviously we don’t have to keep raising the debt limit,” McCain said. “But there’s not the appetite for a showdown that there was before the government shutdown.”

Although Republicans have hardly been breathing fire over the debt ceiling, Senate Democrats are likely to wait until Boehner and GOP leaders unveil their plans before acting, according to one senior aide.

And there are decisions to be made, beyond any talk of concessions. For example, lawmakers will have to work out the length of the debt-limit extension. Democrats want to extend the limit for as long as possible, the aide said, suggesting one or two years. Republicans are apt to want a shorter extension.

Indeed, Republicans have not always put up a vigorous fight over the debt limit.

They ceded a three-month extension early last year in exchange for the No Budget No Pay Act, which called on lawmakers to forfeit their pay if a budget were not passed. It was an easy pill for Democrats to swallow because they intended to pass a budget.

After the shutdown, both chambers hashed out a two-year budget compromise and quickly passed an omnibus appropriations bill that conformed to the spending levels in the measure, prompting Democrats to question what more Republicans might want to achieve.

“Hopefully Republicans will stop worrying about keeping the tea party happy and will work with us to prevent a default the way they’ve done the last two times,” Murray said, “but this time without the drama and needless uncertainty.”

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