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Democrats make a mistake on the debt ceiling


Fresh off a surprisingly resilient midterm performance, Democrats appear to be messing things up from the start by making a major political miscalculation on how to handle the debt ceiling.

Democratic leaders have signaled they have no plans to address the borrowing limit in the current lame session of Congress, when their House and Senate majorities would theoretically give them a chance to raise. or even eliminate the cap entirely without the help of Republican votes.

Democrats also appear to have convinced themselves that if the problem arose in early 2023, pushing the nation once again to the brink of default and economic crisis, Republicans would take responsibility.

“While there is a serious risk to the economy, the gun is in the hands of Republicans,” a Biden adviser told Politico last week. “And there is little doubt as to who will be blamed for it.”

Rarely have I seen more misguided thinking from Joe Biden’s White House.

If there is a debt crisis or, even worse, a default caused by going over the borrowing limit, the blame should indeed lie with the Republicans. But Democrats are kidding themselves if they think they won’t be held accountable for any economic fallout.

It’s not that Republicans actually oppose raising the limit, a superfluous and unnecessary law that only allows the Treasury to borrow money that Congress has already forced it to borrow. (1) But Republicans think they can withhold their votes in order to secure concessions on yet-to-be-revealed policy goals. And they are willing to risk creating havoc in financial markets and undermining confidence in American credit in the process. He’s the political equivalent of a bratty kid threatening to hold his breath until he turns blue.

The economic chaos that would likely result from a debt crisis should prompt Democrats to do whatever it takes to raise the limit now. Ideally, they would drop the ceiling entirely so that we can put an end to these confrontations which do not benefit anyone.

But that would likely involve using the budget reconciliation process in the Senate to avoid a Republican filibuster and would require the support of Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The White House may not have the appetite or the ability to enlist his support.

Manchin faces a potentially tough re-election battle in 2024, so he has good reason to prefer two-party solutions when available. But he’s making a mistake: He probably wouldn’t like any deal offered by Republicans. If Manchin can’t be conquered, the Democrats simply won’t have the votes.

Still, Biden and Senate Democratic leaders should try to get him on board. The problem is that the White House might sincerely believe that only Republicans will pay the price for stalling action on the debt ceiling. It is simply wrong.

Whatever voters may claim they think is responsible, if the economy crashes, Biden will take responsibility. We just had a perfect example of how it works. After Russia invaded Ukraine, polls indicated that voters would blame Russia, not Biden, if gasoline prices rose. Indeed, a solid majority of voters said they were willing to pay more at the pump if that was what it took to fend off Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Yet as soon as gas prices jumped, Biden’s disapproval numbers also rose.

If the United States defaulted on its debt, there is no doubt that a majority of voters, and perhaps an overwhelming majority, would tell pollsters that Republicans in Congress were primarily at fault. But if the economy is damaged, Biden’s position will suffer. It may not be fair, but that’s how things work.

And when November 2024 rolls around, voters won’t let the Democrats off the hook. This should be a strong incentive for Biden and congressional Democrats to end the debt limitation dramas now. (2) As a side benefit, they can know they are doing good public policy by doing so.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Nancy Pelosi will be hard to follow: Matthew Yglesias

• Trump on the defensive for the first time in years: Ramesh Ponnuru

• Democrats in Array? Hard to deny after midterms: Francis Wilkinson

(1) In previous debt ceiling showdowns, some Republicans have claimed without evidence that the government could somehow prioritize the bills it was paying and ignore the rest. This time, at least so far, Republicans are explicitly saying they support raising the cap, but believe in using it to extract concessions from Democrats.

(2) Almost right now. I doubt a vote on the debt limit will make a difference in the Georgia Senate runoff, but the rules Democrats are expected to use would allow Republicans to propose amendments aimed at generating tough votes for Sen. Raphael Warnock , and so it makes sense to wait until after the December 6 vote. For everyone else, the marginal pain of a tough vote two years (or more) before they’re on the ballot again isn’t a big deal.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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