Senate Democrats' Plan for Dealing With the Debt Ceiling: Stay on Message

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. Cliff Owen/AP

The marketplace of ideas among Senate Democrats for dealing with the looming debt ceiling is, at least publicly, decidedly tiny.

Amid revelations that House Republicans are crafting battle plans that include raising the debt ceiling in exchange for plum policy prizes such as an overhaul of entitlements, Senate Democrats are occupying a redoubt they view as the political high ground. They argue that Republicans are holding the government’s debt obligations hostage to their demands for lower government spending.

“There should be no debt-ceiling negotiations,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “It’s this view that some people are willing to, in any way, bump up against that. If that lesson wasn’t learned with what happened in August 2011, I don’t know what you do here.”

What’s new for Democratic leaders is that their GOP opponents on the other side of the Capitol have begun focusing their strategy. For now, Democrats seem to be deferring to the White House’s message circa 2011.

“I think the president has laid out a pretty clear path forward, which is, we don’t play chicken with the debt ceiling,” said Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del. “We don’t put at risk our rating. We don’t put at risk our nation’s economy.”

Even if Senate Democrats object to negotiating over the debt limit, they admit that a budget conference—which, so far, Senate Republicans have objected to precisely because they fear House Republicans might agree to a deal involving spending and the debt limit—is a reasonable option for mapping a way forward.

“The best first step I can think of would be to go to conference on our budgets, and for a few members of the Senate to stop objecting every time we try to go to conference,” Coons said. “Taking hostage the American economy doesn’t strike me as a very constructive route.”

Congress set the stage for the likely impasse earlier this year when House Republicans, wanting to avoid another nasty fight over the debt limit, agreed to raise the ceiling and defer the confrontation until the fiscal-cliff crisis was well behind them.

House Republicans thought they had wedged Senate Democrats into a tough spot, with Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin hammering senators for not passing a budget in four years.

But in March, Republicans lost that foothold when, during an all-night session, Senate leaders managed to get a 50-49 vote to pass a budget. That budget became the Senate’s new marker for fiscal and debt negotiations and effectively represents the chamber’s position.

It’s unclear how much time Congress has until the country reaches the debt ceiling. Earlier this year, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told Congress the government could hold out until September.

Some Democrats, though, seem hopeful that the deadline could be even later. “Is it October already?” Coons responded when approached about the subject.

This article appears in the July 10, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Senate Democrats’ Debt-Ceiling Plan: Stay on Message.

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