It became the norm during a Democratic presidency: Republicans in Congress threaten to shut down the federal government or even allow the United States to default on its debts.
These threats were once much rarer. For most of the 20th century raising the debt ceiling and funding federal government operations tended to be technical and sleepy topics. Members of Congress would argue How? ‘Or’ What spend money rather than the basic mechanisms of the implementation of such spending.
The new era began in the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, attempted to force Bill Clinton to cut Social Security and other programs. Although Gingrich failed, Republicans in Congress embraced his tactics during Barack Obama’s presidency and secured deep cuts to national programs.
Now the pattern repeats itself.
Republicans say they won’t provide enough votes to lift the debt ceiling before the federal government hits its legal borrowing limit next month. And because Democrats have packed a debt ceiling increase along with a bill to extend federal government funding beyond September 30 (the end of the fiscal year), a possible government shutdown is looming. also.
The deadlock could have ripple effects. Economists fear the uncertainty could hurt financial markets, while Democrats – already facing a heavy agenda in Congress – now have another legislative problem to tackle.
McConnell’s strategy …
This time the Republicans have a different goal than they had under the Clinton and Obama administrations. With Democrats controlling both the House and the Senate, Republicans admit they can’t impose spending cuts. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, is instead trying to force Democrats to raise the debt ceiling without Republicans’ help.
He hopes to make Democrats appear fiscally irresponsible while trying to pass a major spending bill that is the centerpiece of President Biden’s agenda. “It is a fully democratic government,” McConnell said yesterday. “They have an obligation to raise the debt ceiling, and they will.”
McConnell’s argument conveniently omits a few relevant facts: A significant chunk of the current debt comes from the tax and spending cuts signed by Donald Trump and passed with Republican votes. And Congress must raise the debt ceiling even if Biden’s spending program fails.
On Tuesday, the Democratic-controlled House passed a bill to lift the debt limit until 2022 and fund the government until early December, as well as provide money for the recovery after a natural disaster and Afghan refugees. Senate Republicans appear likely to block this bill in the coming days, denying it the 60 votes needed to overcome an obstruction.
… and the democratic response
How will the Democrats react? The Democrats are unlikely to let the government shut down or default on its debt, which could be devastating to the economy. One possibility is that Democrats and Republicans together vote to keep government open before the September 30 deadline – and Democrats will then pass a debt ceiling increase using a Senate technique that allows them to bypass the obstruction. systematically and pass a bill with a simple majority. . (The two parties each control 50 Senate seats, and Vice President Kamala Harris can break the tie.)
“We go through these gyrations every time,” Carl Hulse, chief correspondent for The Times in Washington, told us. “It usually comes at the end, and it’s usually pretty messy.”
The party line approach would have drawbacks for Democrats, but they may not have a choice. The legislative technique they should use, known as reconciliation, takes time, making it harder for the party to push through Biden’s platform. (Biden and the Congressional Democrats met yesterday to see if they can overcome their internal divisions over this agenda.)
If it takes weeks for Democrats to raise the debt ceiling and they approach the October deadline, even that could create economic problems. In 2011, the fall in the debt ceiling caused stocks to fall, slowed economic growth and prompted analysts to lower the country’s credit rating for the first time.
“There is a big difference between avoiding default in months or minutes,” Janet Yellen, Biden’s treasury secretary, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Neither delay nor defect is tolerable. “
The potential silver lining for Democrats would be if Republican opposition to raising the debt ceiling unified Congressional Democrats and helped them pass Biden’s bill to fight climate change, reduce poverty, expand education and health care, etc. It is conceivable that the Democratic leadership could incorporate the increased debt ceiling into this larger bill.
The bottom line: This stalemate reflects two major differences between the parties. First, Democrats tend to favor more government spending than Republicans. Second, the modern Republican Party is more tactically aggressive than it was – or the Democratic Party is.
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This week, the New York Times Magazine publishes its annual Travel issue, in which writers and photographers capture snapshots of life from around the world.
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