This April, 114 House Democrats signed on to a letter authored by Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) supporting the “clean” debt-limit increase option. Yesterday Republicans granted their opponents across the aisle their wish, bringing a bill to a vote before the House that would have increased the federal government’s debt limit by $2 trillion, with no spending cuts required. Predictably, the bill failed miserably. No Republicans voted for the measure, while Democrats were split. Ninety-seven Democrats voted in favor of the increase, eighty-two voted against it and seven voted “present.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) accused the GOP of playing political games and advised his colleagues not to vote for the measure. Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI) was less circumspect, immediately reaching to pull the political fire alarm. Levin accused Republicans of a “ploy so egregious that [they] have had to spend the last week pleading with Wall Street not to take it seriously and risk our economic recovery.” Wall Street didn’t appear to be worried, with both the Dow and NASDAQ posting strong gains on Tuesday.
For their part, Republican leadership needed to do something to show it is serious about debt reduction and this vote was a logical step in that direction. It forced Democrats to come down firmly on one side of the spending debate or the other, which will help as negotiations continue. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) made it clear where he stands in a speech he delivered earlier this month. “It’s true that allowing America to default would be irresponsible,” he said. “But it would be more irresponsible to raise the debt limit without simultaneously taking dramatic steps to reduce spending and to reform the budget process.”
Congress and the Obama administration will have two months to work out a compromise economic plan. Republicans have indicated that they can agree to increasing the debt limit, but only if Democrats agree to meaning spending cuts that will reduce the debt over the long term. With today’s vote, the authorized debt limit remains at $14.3 trillion. By utilizing a series of stopgap measures, the government has been able to continue to function under that limit without defaulting on its obligations. However, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said that those tricks of the trade can only be utilized for so long, tagging August 2 as the day the United States defaults on its debts if nothing is done to change the current situation.
Yesterday’s maneuver undoubtedly had as much to do with November 2012 as it did with August 2011. Those Democrats who voted for the measure have handed potential GOP opponents a campaign issue (“so-and-so voted to burden your children and grandchildren with even more crushing debt!”), although it must be admitted most of the ninety-seven supporting the measure represent districts that wouldn’t be expected to vote Republican unless there was Divine intervention, and perhaps not even then. On the other hand, the eighty-two Democrats who voted against a “clean” debt limit increase will annoy a goodly portion of the hard-left contingent of their base. From a strictly political point of view, this was a no-brainer for the GOP, which is surely what annoyed Hoyer and Levin so much.
But the vote also sends another message to the Obama administration: America is getting serious about debt reduction and the president won’t be able to hide behind the skirts of “party unity” and the “will of the people” this time around. The people clearly want this mess fixed and about half of the president’s party agrees. If Obama has even a fleeting hope of repeating the trick of running as a centrist that he pulled off so masterfully in 2008, he must get on the right side of this issue strongly, unambiguously and pretty darn quickly.
Presidential Press Secretary Jim Carney said “it’s fine” in response to the vote, seeming to acknowledge the mood of the people and Congress. But, then Carney resorted to classic political waffling, expressing the administration’s belief that the issue of raising the debt limit shouldn’t be connected to any other issues. “We believe they should not be linked because there is no alternative that’s acceptable to raising the debt ceiling,” he said. “But we’re committed to reducing the deficit.”
Note that Carney said that the administration is committed to reducing the “deficit” not to reducing the national debt. While it’s true that the Obama administration did present a budget that called for slightly less overspending than last years, the president hasn’t taken any actions that will reduce the national debt in any meaningful way. Nor can he, not with an election drawing near. Making the kind of painful cuts needed to deal with the monstrous debt that he did so much to create would alienate too many voters on the left for Obama to even begin to consider such moves. Instead, he’ll continue to try to dance away and prevent the GOP from backing him into a corner on economic issues. Yesterday, Republicans took another step in that direction, but this dance marathon is going to continue for quite a while.
Rich Trzupek, a veteran environmental consultant, is the author of the Encounter Broadside How the EPA’s Green Tyranny is Stifling America and the upcoming book Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA is Ruining American Industry (Encounter Books).