Democrats vs. Raising the Debt Limit


The Obama administration position on raising the nation's debt limit is simple: It has to be done, and it has to be done now.

The second part of that statement is where it goes wrong. We will need to raise the debt ceiling eventually. But there's no hard and fast deadline. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration drew up plans for how to keep operating if the nation reached its debt limit. Those plans still apply. That means there's time to negotiate spending cuts and deficit reduction to go along with the debt-ceiling vote, which is exactly what the White House wants to avoid. But a number of Obama's fellow Democrats, it seems, haven't gotten the message: 

A growing number of Democrats are threatening to defy the White House over the national debt, joining Republican calls for deficit cuts as a requirement for consenting to lift the country's borrowing limit.

…The push-back has come in recent days from Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a freshman who is running for reelection next year. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) told constituents during the Easter recess that he would not vote to lift the debt limit without a "real and meaningful commitment to debt reduction."

Even Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), generally a stalwart White House ally, is undecided on the issue and is "hopeful" that a debt-ceiling bill can be attached to a measure to cut the federal deficit, said her spokesman, Linden Zakula. Klobuchar is also up for reelection next year.

Months ago it seemed unthinkable that Congress might refuse to raise the borrowing limit. Leaders in both parties agreed that failing to do so would risk a default by the U.S. government, which could send interest rates soaring and cut off Social Security checks, as well as salaries for combat troops.

And although many lawmakers and aides say a bipartisan deal is likely, the insistence on conditions by a small but pivotal group of Democrats suggests that any agreement would almost certainly have to include substantial cuts in the deficit — not just to mollify House Republicans but to satisfy Democrats who could be politically vulnerable on spending issues.

"As catastrophic as it would be to fail to raise our debt ceiling, it's even more irresponsible to not take this opportunity to own up to our unsustainable spending path," Sen. Mark Udall (Colo.), another Democrat challenging the White House, said in a statement his office released this week. "If we don't take action to reduce our deficit spending, Congress will be facing this same debt ceiling vote in the near term – still with no end to our deficits in sight."

That's basically right. The point here is not that the debt limit shouldn't be raised at all. It's that any vote to raise the debt limit should also be a vote to start making the sort of cuts and reforms that will keep Congress from having to vote to raise the debt limit again.