Joe Biden has had to confront plenty of new problems since becoming president, from a Covid-19 pandemic that won’t go away to a botched Afghanistan withdrawal. Now he’s about to face an old one: The federal government is running out of money, and Republicans insist they’ll allow a debt default unless Biden abandons the $3.5 trillion spending bill that’s the centerpiece of his domestic agenda.
“Let me be crystal clear about this,” Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, recently told reporters. “Republicans are united in opposition to raising the debt ceiling.” Democrats, unfazed, aren’t buying it and will try to force Republicans to join them in tending to a national debt that’s climbed above $28 trillion. No one doubts that the consequences of default would be severe. “Failing to raise the debt limit would produce widespread economic catastrophe,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned.
If all this sounds familiar, it should. Since at least the 1950s, both parties have engaged in political posturing when the government runs out of funding authority. It’s an easy way to score points when your opponents control the White House— you get to pose as a responsible steward of the public purse for voters who don’t understand that it’s all a ruse. But debt-ceiling clashes come at a cost, and they’ve accelerated since the 1990s, forcing the Treasury to employ “extraordinary measures” to avoid defaulting in 1995-96, 2002, 2003, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2019, and again last month, when the debt limit was reimposed after a bipartisan period of “suspension” agreed to under former President Donald Trump. Washington is about to plunge into this dangerous, market-rattling cycle once again.
While both parties engage in debt-limit brinkmanship, Democrats usually fare worse, because they place a higher value on spending and they’re less willing to court disaster. When Trump wanted to spend big on tax cuts and a defense buildup, Democrats went along. But as Biden is being reminded, Republicans often refuse to reciprocate when a Democrat is in the White House. This has angered Democrats so much that they’ve chosen to force a showdown with McConnell and Republicans—and in doing so, may have backed themselves and their president into a corner.
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