Dem 51
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GOP 49
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The Democrats' Hardball Tactics on the Debt Limit Seem to Be Working

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has threatened the U.S. and world economies with a deep depression by demanding massive budget cuts as the price for raising the debt limit. The limit is likely to be reached sometime in June (actually, it's already been reached, but the Department of the Treasury is keeping the government liquid with smoke and mirrors; that's what will stop working in June, thus making the debt limit "real"). Joe Biden has responded to McCarthy by asking him to produce a budget that he can get 218 votes for. Only then would the President be willing to discuss that budget with McCarthy. The problem, as Biden well knows and McCarthy is discovering, is that it will be virtually impossible to put together a budget that can get 218 Republican votes because his caucus is deeply fractured. Biden is refusing to budge on this.

Democrats are backing Biden. One top House Democrats said: "Republicans are in a hole and digging. So why take away their shovels?"

The split within the Republican ranks is becoming more evident. McCarthy has expressed distrust of the #2 House Republican, Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA). He is also openly fuming with House Budget Committee Chairman Jodey Arrington (R-TX) because Arrington wants a timeline for the process different from what McCarthy wants.

Democrats support Biden's strategy because it forces Republicans to make tough choices about what to cut. Donald Trump has warned Republicans not to touch Social Security or Medicare. No Republican wants to touch defense spending. With those three huge items off the table, draconian cuts would be needed to everything else to eliminate the deficit, which the Republicans say they want. The problem is that many of the programs that would have to be eliminated are immensely popular with the voters and some members are scared to have to vote to kill them. Just one small example is food stamps. Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-NY) likes to tell people how he grew up with a single mom and how she relied on food stamps to feed him. He said: "That is a red line for me. We're not going to be touching or diminishing services or support for single moms." Some of the Republicans in districts Biden won are also against touching food stamps. There aren't 218 votes for cutting food stamps.

Well, what about cutting NASA then? Besides NASA being popular with the public, NASA is important for the economy of Florida. Are the 20 Republican representatives from Florida willing to gut it? We think not. What about farm subsidies? Nope, too many House members come from farming states. How about veterans' hospitals? No way. Waste and fraud? Yes! Republicans want to eliminate that. Unfortunately in the giant Excel spreadsheet that contains the budget, there is no line "waste and fraud" to cut. Talking about cutting the budget in the abstract is easy. Putting together an actual proposed budget that can get 2018 Republican votes will be close to impossible. Biden is counting on McCarthy being unable to put together an alternative budget. When that effort has clearly failed, Biden is going to tell McCarthy: "I gave you the chance to put together a budget we could discuss. Now where is it?"

Meanwhile, in the background, the Democrats are musing about a whole different strategy if talks come to a standstill. They want to force a vote on a clean bill to debt ceiling with nothing else in the bill. McCarthy does not want that bill to come out of committee and come to a vote. However, the House rules have a procedure known as a discharge petition that forces a bill out of committee and onto the floor for a vote of the full House. A discharge petition requires 218 signatures, so the Democrats would have to get five Republicans to vote with them. Can they find five? We don't know, but we do know that 18 House Republicans are in districts that Biden won in 2020. They don't want to be responsible for crashing the U.S. economy because they know who will get the blame.

The process of executing a discharge petition is slow, difficult, and painful. This is intentional because it is a mechanism for the minority, with the help of a few dissenters in the majority, to overturn the will of the speaker. It is not used often, but Democrats are starting the process as a backstop just in case McCarthy is unable to produce a budget and still refuses to budge. It is unlikely to be used, but if the choice is between a discharge petition and the U.S. government defaulting, it might become a viable option in the end. (V)

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