WASHINGTON — Democrats could have lifted the debt ceiling while they still controlled both the House and Senate, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Wednesday, but they declined to do it for no good reason.
“The Democrats, they could have lifted the debt ceiling prior to me becoming speaker,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “They knew the outcome of the election already. They knew we were taking power.”
Now that Republicans control the House, they have taken the debt ceiling hostage by vowing to oppose an increase unless Democrats agree to spending cuts and new “work requirements” in federal safety net programs.
If the two sides don’t reach a deal, then the federal government could default on its debts in the coming weeks — an unprecedented situation that could mess up the financial system and cause mass layoffs.
McCarthy’s comment that Democrats could have lifted the debt ceiling themselves when they had the chance echoes progressive criticism of Democrats for winding up in a debt ceiling standoff with Republicans even though they could see the crisis coming a mile away.
Still, it’s not clear if Democrats could have raised the debt as easily as McCarthy suggested. Many progressive lawmakers, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), said last fall that it would be a good idea to raise the debt ceiling before McCarthy wielded the speaker’s gavel. But the legislative path for a lame-duck debt ceiling bill wasn’t clear at the time.
By then, Republicans already had their sights on using the debt ceiling as leverage and would have opposed efforts to raise, suspend or eliminate the ceiling through regular order. The other option for Democrats would have been to use the complicated “budget reconciliation” process, allowing them to move legislation through the Senate on a simple majority vote, bypassing a Republican filibuster.
But Democrats would have had to overcome reluctance from their own ranks, like that of Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who said in November, “I don’t think it should go to reconciliation.” This month, Manchin told Politico the debt ceiling “needs to be bipartisan,” though he declined to say definitively whether he’d have supported a partisan bill if Democrats had pushed for one — which they seemingly didn’t.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, stopped short on Wednesday of saying she regretted that Democrats didn’t take action when they had the chance.
“We pushed very hard and raised it multiple times that we needed to deal with the debt ceiling immediately, while we had control of all three bodies,” Jayapal said, referring to the House, Senate and White House. She declined to criticize party leaders for not taking the suggestion.
As McCarthy put it, “They decided not to do the rising of the debt ceiling even though they thought people should just raise it cleanly.”