What Congress is really saying about the debt ceiling
The United States is set to default on its debts this summer, and Washington has yet to act.
President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) met to discuss the debt ceiling on February 1st, but the two sides are still at an impasse. Republicans want budget cuts in exchange for a higher debt limit while the White House insists it must be raised with no strings attached.
Here are recent developments that show where the debate stands:
CNN reported that leaders of the different factions within the House GOP recently met in the speaker’s office to develop a debt ceiling proposal the whole party could support.
Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) – a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus – told CNN, “We’re trying to get the framework. We want all buy in… There’s no sense in us, one group putting something out, another group puts something out.”
What that means: Republicans want to avoid making any public proposals until the whole party agrees, so they can look unified and strong while avoiding attacks for unpopular proposals.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) – chairman of the House Financial Services Committee – said the purpose of the negotiations are to “move the debt limit out of the House of Representatives.”
What that means: Republicans don’t expect their plan to be final; rather, it will pressure Democrats in the Senate to negotiate.
Rep. James Comer (R-KY) – chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform – told ABC’s This Week that Social Security and Medicare “are going to be off the table with respect to cuts. But everything else is on the table.” This lines up with Speaker McCarthy’s statement in early February, “We will preserve our ability to defend this nation. Cuts to Medicare and Social Security – they’re off the table. Defaulting on our debt is not an option.”
What that means: Republicans say they won’t cut Social Security, Medicare, or defense spending. They’re also saying that they are committed to avoiding a catastrophic default.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently went on This Week to reiterate his party’s stance on raising the debt ceiling: “We have a clear position: Do it clean. Do it without brinksmanship.”
What that means: Democrats don’t feel pressured to negotiate on the debt ceiling. They want a clean, no-strings-attached bill and they see Republicans using the threat of default as a negotiating chip.
Some lawmakers are looking for bipartisan solutions, but this will take time.
The Wall Street Journal reportedthat House Democrats have scrapped plans for a discharge petition. This procedure would have let Republicans join with Democrats to force a vote on the debt ceiling without the speaker’s support. Moderate Reps. Don Bacon (R-NE) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) – once the most likely to join a discharge petition – have also publicly dismissed the idea.
What that means: the debt ceiling bill may have to be agreed to by House and Senate leaders from both parties.
Rep. Bacon spoke for most moderate Republicans when he criticized the president for not negotiating and some Republicans for having unrealistic demands like balancing the budget in five years. Rep. Bacon has proposed keeping spending growth below the inflation rate in the short term and establishing bipartisan committees to save Social Security and Medicare from insolvency in the long term.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has also supported capping annual spending growth and using bipartisan committees to fix Social Security and Medicare, but he’s careful not to say that President Biden should negotiate on the debt ceiling. Instead, Sen. Manchin wants the two sides to “come together and have an honest, open and public discussion about what we can and must do in the best interest of our nation.”
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) made a direct appeal for separate conversations on raising the debt ceiling and reforming the budget. “Should we address the debt limit? Yes… Do we need to have discussions about inappropriate and runaway spending in Washington, D.C.? Absolutely. Should one be held hostage to the other? No.”
President Biden might be open to Sens. Manchin’s and Sinema’s approach. According to a White House statement, “The President welcomes a separate discussion with congressional leaders about how to reduce the deficit and control the national debt while continuing to grow the economy.”
What that means: The semantics matter. Despite the president’s stated refusal to condition a debt ceiling raise on spending cuts, he could be open to acting on each on parallel tracks.
A CBS / YouGov poll from early February found that 69% of voters think President Biden should compromise to raise the debt ceiling. 68% said the debt ceiling should be raised to avoid default.
What that means: Americans are less focused on the particulars of how action happens. Voters agree: the U.S. should never default on its debts, and Washington needs to get a handle on spending.