Top Democrats Warming Up To Denying GOP A Chance To Leverage Debt Limit

Raising the limit on government borrowing in the lame duck would help Biden but could risk other priorities.

Democratic congressional leaders signaled Sunday they’re willing to consider raising the federal debt limit during the upcoming lame-duck session of Congress, while both chambers of Congress remain safely in Democratic hands.

Dealing with the debt limit now instead of only a few weeks or days before the Treasury Department is projected to run out of borrowing room would be a break from Congress’ past pattern. But it also would let Democrats deprive Republicans of the chance to leverage it in the next two years if they win the House by holding an increase hostage for GOP priorities.

“We’ll see what they contend that they want to do. But our best shot I think is to do it now,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.

“Again, winning the Senate gave us a lot of leverage for how we go forward if we don’t do it in the lame duck. But my hope would be that we could get it done in the lame duck.”

“The debt ceiling, of course, is something that we have to deal with. And it's something that we will look at over the next few weeks.”

- Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)

In a separate appearance on CNN, Pelosi said Democrats were focused on making sure they won in Tuesday’s midterms and preparing for the lame duck “whether it’s debt ceiling, or whether it’s other legislation that is necessary for the people as we go forward.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), fresh off of declaring victory for Senate Democrats Saturday night, was a bit more cautious, possibly reflecting the political and time constraints dealing with the debt limit his chamber would face.

“The debt ceiling, of course, is something that we have to deal with. And it’s something that we will look at over the next few weeks,” he said at a news conference in New York City.

One prominent Senate Democrat, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), came out in favor raising the limit sooner than later, writing in The New York Times that Democrats should boost it “to block Republicans from taking our economy hostage next year.”

For Democrats, the choice may well come down to whether the House falls, as expected, into Republicans hands and by what margin. GOP control would allow Republicans to withhold action on an increase or a temporary suspension unless Biden and Senate Democrats agreed to Republican demands, like trimming Social Security or Medicare spending.

A similar move in 2011 resulted in only mildly effective caps on the annual defense and nondefense spending the Congress approves each year. But the wrangling over the issue led to the first downgrade of U.S. government debt ever.

A very narrow GOP House majority might convince Democrats that the danger of another 2011-style stand off is low, and the lame duck could be used for wrapping up work on annual spending bills, a defense policy bill and a bill to codify the right to same-sex marriage.

Boosting the debt ceiling with Democrat-only votes in the lame duck would require a lot of precious Senate floor time, both to pass a budget and then to pass a separate spinoff filibuster-proof debt limit bill.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) at an October campaign rally for gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) at an October campaign rally for gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek.
Mathieu Lewis-Rolland via Getty Images

Both pieces of legislation would also require Democrats in the Senate to slog through a vote-a-rama, a daylong series of lightning round votes on amendments often brought up to provide fodder campaign ads. And Senate Democrats up for reelection in 2024 may also be reluctant to vote for an increase.

There was $31.176 trillion in debt covered by the limit as of Wednesday, only a few hundred billion below the limit. Treasury has always deployed various accounting maneuvers, though, as it gets close to the cap and doing so again would buy enough time to probably keep below the limit until the fall or late summer of 2023.

The periodic debt ceiling fights have led some to argue the limit should be done away with or raised so high as to become a nonissue. Retiring House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) supports legislation to give authority to issue debt back to the Treasury Department, where it resided before Congress created the debt limit around World War I.

“He would love to see it abolished in the lame duck no matter the outcome of the election,” a spokeswoman for Yarmuth told HuffPost last week.

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