Dems pass buck on debt ceiling hike

Democrats relegated to minority status in the House say Republicans are now the ones responsible for raising the federal debt ceiling and are hinting that they might vote against it to force the GOP’s hand.

“It is up to the majority to get this bill through; they can’t duck the responsibility,” Financial Service Committee ranking member Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told The Hill on Friday.

If Congress fails to raise the $14.3 billion debt limit this spring, the United States government will default on its debt, a scenario that could throw financial markets into chaos. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner sent a letter to House Republican leaders last week warning that a debt default would result in “catastrophic economic consequences that would last for decades.”

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The mounting conflict over the debt ceiling has been portrayed as a battle between President Obama and Tea Party-backed fiscal conservatives, with the House GOP leadership trapped somewhere in the middle.

But rather than rallying to Obama’s side, House Democrats are remaining aloof. They say it is the GOP’s responsibility to raise the debt ceiling now that Republicans are the ones in charge of the chamber.

“I reject any attempt to shift the responsibility to the minority,” Frank said. “Don’t do us any favors.”

When asked if Democrats will whip members to pass the debt-ceiling increase as Obama has asked, a Democratic leadership aide told The Hill it is up to Republicans to get the bill through the chamber. 

Republican leaders are on record as saying the debt ceiling must be raised, but whether they can get their members to go along with that remains to be seen. Their position is complicated by the GOP’s crop of 84 freshman lawmakers, many of whom ran on a strict platform of fiscal responsibility and risk being seen as sell-outs if they approve more federal debt.

A number of Tea Party-backed lawmakers, including Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), have already said there is no way they will vote to raise the debt ceiling.

Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who opposes raising the debt limit under any circumstances, predicted that most of the freshman Republicans will be “talked into” raising the ceiling once the vote arrives.

“It won’t take them very long to be unhappy. That’s why the real test is going to be those 80-some new members and how they are going to vote,” he said during an interview on Fox Business Network posted Monday. “And I [expect] they’re going to be talked into it — the majority will be talked into it — because they are going to get some promise they are going to cut back.”

In return for approving the ceiling increase, Republican leaders, led by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), are pressuring the administration to agree to spending cuts or mandatory spending caps. On Friday, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) also said he would not vote to increase the ceiling without a budget cutting agreement.

GOP operatives are working to frame the issue as a failure of leadership by the president if he allows the debt to rise without taking action to reduce spending, GOP aides said. 

But it is unclear whether Republican leaders will be able to leverage their power, since they know they can’t let the bill be defeated. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Thursday acknowledged that the U.S. simply cannot be allowed to default.

Frank also said it would be unconscionable for the GOP to fail to raise the debt ceiling since it would have an immediate impact on U.S. troops in a time of war.

Votes to raise the debt ceiling have traditionally been the unhappy task of the majority. When Republicans have been in charge, most of their members have voted for the debt ceiling increase, with most Democrats voting against. The roles have reversed when Democrats have been in charge.

Ironically, Obama has a vote against the debt ceiling on his record from his days in the Senate. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs defended the president’s 2006 vote against raising the debt ceiling last week, saying Obama knew the bill had enough votes to pass and was thus free to make a political point about the need to restrain spending. 

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has also been on both sides of the issue. In 2004, Hoyer said voting to raise the debt ceiling was “immoral” even as the increase was approved by a vote of 208-204.

As majority leader in 2009, Hoyer apologized for his rhetoric and whipped his caucus to raise the limit. The bill passed 218-214.

“I voted against increasing the debt. It was a demagoguing vote. I voted four times against raising the debt. It was a demagoguing vote,” Hoyer said at the time. “I want to admit that and tell people. Why? Because I didn’t believe then, nor do I believe now, that not paying America’s bills is an option that Americans expect of us. Americans expect us to pay our bills.”

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Hoyer adopted the position that the debt limit had to be tied to statutory pay-as-you-go legislation. When the ceiling was last raised in February 2010, that link was made, and the bill passed 233-187.

A number of Democrats voted against the bill anyway. Reps. Bobby Bright (D-Ala.), Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), Glenn Nye (D-Va.), Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.), Gary Peters (D-Minn.), Bob Filner (D-Calif.), Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.), Mike McIntyre (D-N.C), Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.), Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) all voted no.

Bright, Minnick, Mitchell, Nye and Taylor, all members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, all lost their reelection bids last year.

Of the 54 Blue Dogs who served in the last Congress, only 26 are left.

Blue Dog Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said in an interview that Blue Dogs are waiting to see what Republicans come up with on the debt limit before deciding how to vote. He did not elaborate on whether that is because Blue Dogs would back a bill that included spending restraints.

Many Blue Dogs only voted to raise the debt ceiling last time because they were promised and received statutory pay-as-you-go legislation, one aide to a Blue Dog said. They will have to look hard whether the GOP bill meets Blue Dog goals, including deficit reduction, the aide said. 

One GOP aide said that even if Democrats wanted to encourage the Blue Dogs to vote against raising the ceiling in order to force Boehner to find more “yes” votes, that strategy is limited by the fact there are so few Blue Dogs left after the November “shellacking.”

— Jordan Fabian contributed to this story.

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