Democrats’ Pretend Debt Limit Fight

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A view of the US Capitol on January 27, 2014 in Washington.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
Feb. 3, 2014, 5:02 p.m.

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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