Democrats’ Pretend Debt Limit Fight

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.”

What We're Following See More »
TAPING IN NEW YORK TODAY
Biden to Guest on ‘Law and Order: SVU’
8 minutes ago
WHY WE CARE

"Vice President Joe Biden will appear in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that will mention the backlog of untested rape kits in many cities, as well as efforts to end violence against women—an issue close to Biden, who authored the Violence Against Women Act in 1994." He'll be in New York to tape the episode today.

Source:
PREEMPTIVE STRIKE?
Clinton Heading to the Rust Belt
28 minutes ago
THE DETAILS

"Clinton's first order of business after the Democratic convention is a bus trip through the electoral battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Ohio, the opening move in a strategy to defend her party's grip on states President Barack Obama won and to brand her opponent as unfit to be president. It shows a campaign eager to close off a likely effort by Donald Trump, her Republican opponent, to build an Electoral College majority by winning working-class, white voters in the Rust Belt and other slowly diversifying states."

Source:
RUSSIANS AGAIN?
FBI Probing Hack at DCCC
37 minutes ago
THE DETAILS

"The FBI is investigating a cyber intrusion at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) that may be related to an earlier hack at the Democratic National Committee." The intrusion "may have been intended to gather information about donors, rather than to steal money."

Source:
DO THEY NEED TO GET TO 15%?
Will Romney Endorse the Libertarian Ticket?
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson told CNN Thursday that Mitt Romney was considering endorsing him for president this fall." He said the two had recently spoken. Johnson's running mate, Bill Weld, agreed that they have a good chance of winning the endorsement, especially if they meet the 15% polling threshold for participating in the presidential debates.

Source:
FIRST WOMAN NOMINATED BY MAJOR PARTY
Hillary Clinton Accepts the Democratic Nomination for President
11 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"It is with humility, determination, and boundless confidence in America’s promise that I accept your nomination for president," said Hillary Clinton in becoming the first woman to accept a nomination for president from a major party. Clinton gave a wide-ranging address, both criticizing Donald Trump and speaking of what she has done in the past and hopes to do in the future. "He's taken the Republican party a long way, from morning in America to midnight in America," Clinton said of Trump. However, most of her speech focused instead on the work she has done and the work she hopes to do as president. "I will be a president of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. For the struggling, the striving, the successful," she said. "For those who vote for me and for those who don't. For all Americans together."

×