Democrats invoke Reagan in support of debt-ceiling increase

As a budget compromise between the parties remains elusive, Democrats are turning to a conservative icon to guide the way to a debt-ceiling increase.

President Obama and Democrats in Congress have begun pointing out that President Ronald Reagan pushed to raise the debt ceiling nearly twenty times during his presidency.

"Ronald Reagan worked with [Democratic Speaker] Tip O’Neill and Democrats to cut spending, raise revenues and reform Social Security," Obama said Saturday in his weekly address, noting that "that kind of cooperation should be the least you expect from us."

In press conferences, floor speeches, and interviews recently, Democrats have cited Reagan's support for raising the debt ceiling in arguing to raise the debt ceiling now.

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As the Aug. 2 deadline nears, after which the Treasury Department projects the U.S. economy will default, both sides have dug in to their negotiating positions. Republicans say they will not raise taxes, and Democrats say they will not slash benefits for the neediest Americans. 

Some conservative Republicans have challenged the need to raise the debt ceiling at all, saying the Obama administration is using scare tactics in order to continue its liberal spending policies. 

Democrats seem to believe that invoking Reagan could outflank that argument. Noting that conservatives' favorite president in the of the 20th century voted to increase the debt ceiling takes the argument beyond today's political lines and puts it in historical context. 

"Ronald Reagan was a strong conservative. But Ronald Reagan said that there were important times for compromise for the good of the country," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said at the Capitol on Friday. "The debt ceiling was raised 17 times when Ronald Reagan was president, and as Alan Simpson – former Sen. Simpson said – that when push came to shove, Reagan agreed 11 times to packages that included revenue for the good of the country, for the good of compromise."

In particular, Democrats note that in 1983 Reagan sent a letter to Howard H. Baker (R-Tenn.), the Senate majority leader at the time, calling for his support in raising the debt ceiling.

"This letter is to ask for your help and support, and that of your colleagues, in the passage of an increase in the limit on the public debt," Reagan's letter to Baker began.

"Henceforth, the Treasury Department cannot guarantee that the Federal Government will have sufficient cash on any one day to meet all of its mandated expenses, and thus the United States could be forced to default on its obligations for the first time in its history," Reagan wrote.

In a speech on the Senate floor last week, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) mentioned Reagan's letter while calling for a debt ceiling increase.


On Friday Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has been a participant in closed meetings with Obama, Vice President Biden, and the Congressional leadership on raising the debt ceiling, made a similar statement.

"President Ronald Reagan increased the debt ceiling eighteen times in eight years," Durbin said on a local Chicago Fox TV affiliate Friday morning, although Reagan increased the debt ceiling only seventeen times. "Never once did we face this economic crisis with the threat that perhaps we wouldn't extend the debt ceiling."

At a press conference on Wednesday, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) said that under Reagan the limit was increased "without controversy."

"And it was done 17 times, I think, under President Reagan without controversy, and so I continue to look forward to the leadership of the president to make sure that we meet our full faith and credit of the United States and our obligations by raising the debt ceiling," Edwards said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney cited the Great Communicator in arguing that it is mutual sacrifice that is needed to end the current stalemate.

"Ronald Reagan – who is admired widely by many Americans, but in particular Republicans, who admire him as somebody who was serious about cutting spending and reducing taxes and getting control of deficits – was willing to work with the Democratic Speaker of the House and accept that he wasn’t going to get everything he wanted, and in fact recognized that if he insisted on his maximalist position he wouldn’t get anything at all," Carney said Thursday.

But putting the debt-ceiling debate in a historical context could be a dangerous game for Democrats. As many Republicans have noted, top Democrats, including President Obama when he was a senator, voted against raising the debt ceiling during the Bush administration. 

"The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure," Obama said in 2006. "Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren."

Both sides say the other side's charge is motivated by politics rather than policy.