A number of key Democrats say that their party should take matters into its own hands and raise the national debt limit by itself once Republicans block their plans as expected in the Senate, underscoring the lack of options facing the White House and Democratic leaders in the face of stiff GOP resistance.
But going it alone would force Democrats to employ a time-consuming budget maneuver that would bog down both chambers – especially the Senate – and subject their members to a parade of politically charged votes with the national debt approaching $29 trillion.
And on Wednesday, the chairman of the House Budget Committee insisted that the procedural obstacles and time constraints would prevent the party from using the budget process to raise the debt ceiling in time to avoid a default, a bid aimed at pressuring top Republicans to agree to suspend the nation’s borrowing limit in a bipartisan vote.
Yet rank-and-file Democrats are growing increasingly worried about the mid-October deadline, nervous about the impact on consumers of a first-ever default on the national debt as well as the political backlash that members of both parties would almost certainly endure. And they say that party leaders should indeed take steps to raise the debt ceiling through the budget process, regardless of the obstacles they encounter along the way.
“Oh, yeah,” said Rep. Jim Cooper, a moderate Democrat from Tennessee, when asked if he’d support using the budget process to raise the debt ceiling if Republicans don’t give them the votes in the Senate.
“It’s a top national priority to avoid default – it’s no excuse,” Cooper told CNN on Wednesday. “So you got to do whatever it takes to avoid default. You cannot let America default. Period.”
The powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Richard Neal, told CNN he’d support taking steps to raise the debt ceiling with just Democratic votes through the budget process.
“If we had to do it I would do that,” said Neal, who’s a Massachusetts Democrat. “I mean that the idea that America would default on debt is so far removed from everything I’ve ever entertained or thought of since I’ve been here. I mean, I’m stunned that we even have these moments.”
Asked again if he’d favor Democrats raising the debt ceiling themselves if the GOP posture doesn’t change, Neal reiterated: “I’d favor paying our debts, yes.”
And Democratic Rep. Haley Stevens, whose Michigan district has been targeted by Republicans for 2022, said when asked about raising the debt limit with just Democratic votes: “We’ve got to do what it takes to avoid a default.”
The comments — echoed by a number of other House and Senate Democrats – could undercut the stiff position among Democratic leaders, who have so far refused to publicly consider using the budget process to raise the debt ceiling on a straight party-line vote.
Instead, they have tied a suspension of the debt limit to a must-pass bill to fund the government by the September 30 deadline, daring Republicans to block it and risk a potentially catastrophic default and shutdown of federal agencies.
Yet Republicans aren’t blinking, and only a handful have left open the possibility that they may support the stopgap measure – namely because the package includes billions in aid for communities hit hard by natural disasters, like in Louisiana.
“Not 10, no,” said Senate GOP Whip John Thune of South Dakota when asked Wednesday if there would be enough Republicans to break a filibuster on the package.
Pointing to roughly trillions more in taxes and spending that Democrats want to pass along straight party lines through the budget process, Thune said: “If they’re going to do all that with 51 votes, they’ll be raising the debt ceiling with 51 votes.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California – and many other Democrats – have been furious at the GOP position, saying their party helped Republicans suspend the debt ceiling three times under then-President Donald Trump, including after the 2017 approval of the GOP tax law through the same partisan budget process. And Democrats are quick to note that raising the debt ceiling allows the US to pay bills that have already been racked up.
“Are we hostage to Republicans who are threatening to blow up a part of the economic system because they want to do that for politics?” asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a progressive Massachusetts Democrat who’s a member of Schumer’s leadership team. “That’s just not where we should be as a nation.”
Failure to raise the debt ceiling in time could halt payments that millions of Americans rely on, including paychecks to federal workers, Medicare benefits, military salaries, tax refunds, Social Security checks and payments to federal contractors. A memo circulated by the White House last week for state and local officials listed several programs that would be halted if Congress fails, including for disaster relief, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, infrastructure, education, public health and child nutrition.
Six former treasury secretaries urged congressional leadership to raise the debt limit on Wednesday, saying that an “unprecedented default” could “cause serious economic and national security harm” and “threaten economic growth.”
On Tuesday, Schumer didn’t answer a question directly when asked if Democrats would raise the debt ceiling by themselves if they had to, saying instead that it was imperative to do it along bipartisan lines, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has sought.
Rep. John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat who’s the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said Wednesday that he and his staff have studied the possibility that they could go through the reconciliation process to raise the debt limit – and he insisted that it’s not possible to pull it off.
“You can’t do it,” Yarmuth said Wednesday. “The problems are almost insurmountable. And you certainly couldn’t do it in time to stave off a default.”
Yarmuth also made clear the resistance from Pelosi.
“I have rarely heard the speaker and leadership more adamant about anything that they are not going to do this through reconciliation,” Yarmuth said, referring to the budget process.
Democrats have largely resisted talking about what would come next if Republicans blocked their bill to increase the debt limit and fund the government through mid-December, arguing that Republicans have no other choice but to change their minds.
“I have every confidence that the Republican Party – at least some of them– will come to their senses and not allow us to default,” Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats, told reporters.
Without GOP support, Democrats have two main options. One would allow them to revise their current budget resolution, a process that is rife with procedural hurdles. The other option would be to deploy a little-used part of the Budget Act, which allows them to increase the debt ceiling after approving a separate budget resolution in both chambers. It would take time to pursue and require Democrats to engage in two more rounds of so-called vote-a-ramas in the Senate, a marathon series of amendment votes on the floor that occurs only during the budget process.
That route, however, would require Democrats to take some tough votes.
Part of the resistance to increasing the debt ceiling has been that, unlike suspending the debt ceiling or pausing it, raising it would require Democrats to include an exact dollar figure of how much they want to increase the country’s debt by. For Democrats running for reelection, that is a ready-made campaign ad that leadership is fully aware could be politically damaging.
Still, some are arguing that raising the debt ceiling may not be as controversial as it used to be.
Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat on the Budget Committee, told reporters that he doesn’t have a strong feeling about how the debt ceiling gets raised, he just wants to make sure it happens.
Other Democrats were hoping their leadership would repeatedly force Republicans to vote on legislation to increase the ceiling, and that included keeping the increase tied to the government funding bill.
“It looks like we are going to have to give Republicans multiple chances to not terrorize the American economy,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut.
But if Republicans block the bill in the Senate, as expected, what exactly Democrats do remains to be seen – and many on Capitol Hill have little idea what’s next.
“We will sh*t little bricks,” said Rep. John Garamendi, a California Democrat, when asked what Democrats would do if the GOP blocks the debt ceiling hike.
He let out a laugh, then walked onto the House floor.
CNN’s Alex Rogers and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.