Handicapping the Debt Ceiling Debate

By :: January 14th, 2011

Sometime this spring, Congress will vote to increase the debt ceiling. That vote won’t come easy. Newly ascendant House Republicans will threaten to withhold needed votes unless significant spending cuts or budget process reforms are attached to the measure. Democrats will denounce Republicans for threatening the government’s ability to pay its bills. And Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner will be forced into creative financing moves to buy Congressional leaders enough time to strike a deal.

But strike a deal they will. With monthly deficits running around $100 billion, the United States can’t cut spending or increase tax revenues enough to avoid further borrowing this year. It is equally inconceivable (I hope) that our elected leaders will decide to withhold payments from Social Security beneficiaries, our military, and our creditors.

So the debt ceiling will go up. And that means that at least 50 senators and more than 200 House members will cast a politically toxic yea vote.

Which lucky members will they be? The answer may well depend on what other budget provisions accompany the debt limit measure. That’s impossible to handicap today. In the meantime, though, we can look at past votes. They tell a clear story: debt limit votes are about politics, not principle.

Consider, for example, Senate votes on stand-alone debt limit measures over the past decade:

When Republicans held both the Senate and the White House (2003, 2004, 2006), they provided virtually all the yea votes, while almost all Democrats voted no. When the Democrats were in power (2009, 2010), the roles reversed: the Democrats provided all but one of the yea votes, while Republicans voted no. Only when government was divided – with a Democratic Senate and a Republican president (2002, 2007) – has the vote to lift the debt limit been bipartisan.

The House has taken fewer stand-alone votes than the Senate (because of the so-called Gephardt rule, which the Republicans abolished last week), but they show the same pattern: the party in power votes to increase the debt limit:

History thus suggests that Democrats will bear the burden of lifting the debt limit in the Senate; expect at least 50 yea votes. The only interesting question is whether individual Republicans filibuster the increase; if so, a 60-vote cloture measure would require at least 7 Republican votes as well.

Handicapping the House is more difficult since we’ve had no recent experience with divided government. If the Senate provides any guide, roughly equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats will ultimately vote for an increase. That would allow many Tea Party-backed Republicans to vote no without affecting the outcome. And other members might simply skip the vote. That’s what 21 members did in 2004, when it took just 208 votes to raise the debt ceiling.

Note: Congress increased the debt limit three other times during the past decade as part of larger bills: the 2008 housing act, the 2008 TARP act, and the 2009 stimulus. For simplicity, I have included all votes by Independents with the Democrats, since that’s how those members caucused during this period.

16Comments

  1. Michael Bindner  ::  11:42 am on January 15th, 2011:

    This could be the issue that creates a pool of reliable gypsy moth Republicans in the House. In the 90s, there were 75 Republicans that Clinton could count on to vote with the Democrats and roll the leadership on fiscal issue. I suspect that this vote will create a similar group, since not raising the limit is unthinkable.

    Luckly, there are only 25 votes needed, not 75 – and there are 62 Republicans from districts Obama won in 2008.

    I suspect that there will be some kind of deficit reduction or the promise of it. Maybe an earmark free omnibus with cuts to both defense and civil spending for the current fiscal year might give the GOP its face saving deficit reduction vote. Another possibility is that the Fiscal Commission could be reconstituted, with more Republican votes and an up and down vote on the end product as a condition of debt limit extension. Moodys and the Chinese will like that one. It is time to move the process from recommendations to legislation and a gimmick the the Commission seems like just the ticket.

  2. Sid F  ::  7:52 pm on January 15th, 2011:

    As you may remember, Obama yielded to a “hostage” situation on the so-called tax compromise (so called because the only compromise was on the part of Obama). Now we see Eric Cantor saying that unless the President acquiesces to Republicans on their agenda, they will hold the debt ceiling hostage.

    You see, in addition to being bad policy, the comprise has convinced the Repubicans that the President will cave on the debt ceiling issue, so expect the same strategy by them. And based on past experience, expect the same result.

  3. Michael Bindner  ::  1:37 pm on January 17th, 2011:

    The White House and the Democratic Leadership could have easily crafted a budget resolution to do tax policy under reconciliation. They did not because they did not want to. They are crying all the way to the bank on this issue – contributions from wealthy donors in hand.

  4. mutuelle handicapé  ::  11:47 am on May 18th, 2011:

    hello nice article

  5. mutuelle handicapé  ::  11:48 am on May 18th, 2011:

    hello good article

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    […] […]

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  8. Ralph Anderson  ::  9:30 am on July 17th, 2011:

    What I want to know is why the debt ceiling was raised when the economy was at its height? Why can’t the government function like I do? When I make a lot of money I put it in the bank and I invest it, I don’t go out and spend it like the Republicans voted to in 2003, 2004, and 2006. Now the economy is in horrible shape I’m not worried because I have money saved so if I have to spend a little more than I take in it will be just fine. I call it being a responsible adult.

  9. The Source 96.7FM & 1370AM – WOCA » [link] Handicapping the Debt Ceiling Debate — Urban Institute  ::  9:54 am on July 17th, 2011:

    […] which shows that raising the debt ceiling is a very polarized activity between the two parties. source When Republicans held both the Senate and the White House (2003, 2004, 2006), they provided […]

  10. The Source 96.7FM & 1370AM – WOCA » Handicapping the Debt Ceiling Debate — Urban Institute  ::  7:01 pm on July 17th, 2011:

    […] which shows that raising the debt ceiling is a very polarized activity between the two parties. source When Republicans held both the Senate and the White House (2003, 2004, 2006), they provided […]

  11. Stella  ::  3:12 pm on September 13th, 2011:

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    […] much more willing to support his debt ceiling increases than they were under Bush. And that’s typically been the trend – presidential party votes in favor, opposition criticizes it. That opposition’s just been kicked up a couple of notches […]

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    […] Republican posturing today you’d think that they always voted against any more debt. Wrong. In 2003, 2004 and 2006, Senate Republicans led the push for increasing it. They did so because, at […]

  15. Debt Ceiling: How Can The U.S. Fix This Fiscal Fiasco? Abolish It | DEBT RELIEF NEWS  ::  3:38 pm on January 20th, 2013:

    […] Republican posturing today you’d think that they always voted against any more debt. Wrong. In 2003, 2004 and 2006, Senate Republicans led the push for increasing it. They did so because, at […]

  16. Debt Ceiling: How Can The US Fix This Fiscal Fiasco? Abolish It  ::  2:23 am on January 21st, 2013:

    […] Republican posturing today you’d think that they always voted against any more debt. Wrong. In 2003, 2004 and 2006, Senate Republicans led the push for increasing it. They did so because, at […]