Congressional Brinkmanship

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It has become the norm during a Democratic presidency: Republicans in Congress are threatening to shut down the federal government or even allow the US to default on its debts.

These threats used to be much rarer. For much of the 20th century, raising the debt ceiling and financing federal government operations were often sleepy, technical topics. Members of Congress would argue how to spend money rather than the basic mechanisms of carrying out that expenditure.

The new era began in the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, tried to force Bill Clinton to cut Social Security and other programs. Though Gingrich failed, Congressional Republicans adopted his tactics during Barack Obama’s presidency and won significant cuts to domestic programs.

Now the pattern repeats.

Republicans say they won’t vote enough to lift the debt ceiling before the federal government reaches its legal limit on loans next month. And because Democrats have merged a debt ceiling hike with a bill to extend federal government funding beyond Sept. 30 (the end of the fiscal year), a possible government shutdown also looms.

The deadlock can have ripple effects. Economists are concerned that the uncertainty could hurt financial markets, while Democrats — who already have a crowded congressional agenda — now have yet another legislative problem to solve.

This time the Republicans have a different goal than during the Clinton and Obama administrations. Now that Democrats control both the House and Senate, Republicans recognize they can’t cut spending. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, is instead trying to force Democrats to lift the debt ceiling without Republican help.

He hopes to make Democrats seem fiscally irresponsible, while at the same time trying to pass a major spending bill that is the center of President Biden’s agenda. “This is a fully democratic government,” McConnell said yesterday. “They have a duty to raise the debt ceiling, and they will do it.”

McConnell’s argument conveniently omits a few pertinent facts: A significant portion of today’s debt stems from tax cuts and spending 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 Democrat-controlled House passed a bill to lift the debt cap through 2022 and fund the government through early December, as well as provide money for disaster recovery and Afghan refugees. Senate Republicans appear likely to block that bill in the coming days, depriving it of the 60 votes it takes to overcome a filibuster.

How will the Democrats react? There is little chance that the Democrats will let the government shut down or default on its debts, which could be devastating to the economy. One possibility is that Democrats and Republicans will vote together to keep the government open before the Sept. 30 deadline — and the Democrats will then approve a debt ceiling increase using a Senate technique that allows them to bypass the filibuster and pass a bill with a straight majority. . (The two parties hold 50 Senate seats each, and Vice President Kamala Harris could break a tie.)

“We go through these moves every time,” Carl Hulse, The Times’ chief correspondent in Washington, told us. “It usually comes right at the end, and it’s usually pretty messy.”

The party line approach would have drawbacks for the Democrats, but they may not have a choice. The legislative technique they are supposed to use, known as reconciliation, is time-consuming, making it more difficult for the party to pass on Biden’s agenda. (Biden and Congressional Democrats met yesterday to see if they could overcome their internal divisions over that agenda.)

If Democrats take weeks to raise the debt ceiling and they’re approaching the October deadline, even that could cause economic problems. Debt ceiling in 2011 sent stocks plummeting, slowing economic growth and prompting analysts to downgrade the country’s credit rating for the first time.

“There’s a big difference between avoiding default by months or minutes,” Biden’s Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wrote recently. in The Wall Street Journal. “Neither delay nor non-payment is acceptable.”

The potential silver lining for Democrats would be if the Republican opposition to raising the debt ceiling united Congressional Democrats and helped them pass Biden’s bill to fight climate change, reduce poverty, expand education and health care, and more. . It’s conceivable that Democratic leaders could include the debt ceiling hike in that larger bill.

It comes down to: This deadlock reflects two major differences between the parties. First, Democrats prefer more government spending than Republicans. Second, the modern Republican Party is more tactically aggressive than it used to be—or than the Democratic Party.

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