May 22, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Democrats' debt regrets

Illustration of a donkey holding a big hundred dollar bill in its mouth

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With just 10 days until the U.S. government's "hard deadline" to avoid a default, Democrats' anxiety has been compounded by new regrets over how Washington blundered to the edge of economic Armageddon.

Why it matters: Political and business leaders had long been aware of a potential debt ceiling crisis if the GOP won the House. Yet Democrats appear to have underestimated Republicans' intransigence — and their unity behind House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

The big picture: The range of Democratic regrets — which are not necessarily shared by all elements of the party, including the White House — largely center on three strategic decisions made over the past six months.

1. Not raising or abolishing the debt ceiling when they had full control of government.

  • For two years, Democrats held the White House, House and Senate — albeit with the narrowest of majorities and a pair of centrist wild cards in Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.).
  • The Congressional Progressive Caucus called for Democrats to act on the debt ceiling in last fall's lame-duck session "to prevent Republican hostage-taking efforts" that could result in spending cuts.
  • Moderate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told Politico last week that if he could "do one thing different, it would have been raising the debt limit late last year."

2. Betting on GOP dysfunction without a Plan B.

  • McCarthy's tortured, 15-ballot speaker election in January left Democrats skeptical that the divided GOP conference could muster the votes for a party-line debt ceiling bill.
  • Without that leverage, Democrats reasoned, moderate Republicans might take the responsible route of voting for the "clean" debt ceiling hike that President Biden had been calling for.
  • Instead, McCarthy again defied the odds by passing a conservative wish list with just one vote to spare — strengthening his hand and forcing the White House to regroup.
  • "It’s not unreasonable to expect Republican leaders to be adults, though," Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) stressed to Axios. "We gave them more benefit than they deserve, I guess."

3. Not negotiating sooner.

  • Biden vowed he would not negotiate over the debt ceiling, arguing it would only reward the GOP's hostage-taking. But that's indeed the position he's now in — even if the White House continues to claim these are separate negotiations over the budget.
  • "His team and leaders in the Congress were mistaken if they thought that refusing to negotiate was the strongest approach," Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) told Axios, arguing Democrats may have been able to push for tax hikes on the wealthy if they had started talks earlier.
  • Asked if revenue raisers could still be on the table, a senior House Democrat told Axios: "I think this is starting too late. It's too precarious, and, sadly, most would argue we missed that boat."

The bottom line: A growing number of Democrats now believe the only acceptable escape hatch is for Biden to invoke the 14th Amendment.

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