Capitol building
Credit: Daniel Huizinga/Flickr

Last week, I asked what the Democrats should demand in return for providing some votes for raising the debt ceiling. I brought it up because it appears that there are enough Republicans who aren’t inclined to vote for the hike themselves that congressional Republican leadership is going to have to go hat-in-hand to Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and request some assistance.

Several fiscal hawks said they wouldn’t support raising the debt ceiling without measures to reduce spending and the debt. House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said he’d support a hike only “if there is a real path to balance … but we have typically not shown the intestinal fortitude to do just that.”

Meadows’ Freedom Caucus colleague Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) called the “debt ceiling is a leverage point in forcing conversation about where do we go from here” and said he wouldn’t vote for an increase without cuts.

“If our prescription is simply to keep on doing what we’ve been doing, I think that we’re going to see one heck of a financial storm coming,” Meadows said.

Everyone is talking about the draconian cuts in the White House budget blueprint, but they wouldn’t put a dent in the deficit.

Now, the Democrats generally see it as morally wrong and politically irresponsible to create doubt about the full faith and credit of the United States. Under Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” They recognize that both parties, when they’re in the minority, play the game of withholding votes for increased borrowing, but not to the point that there’s any serious threat of national default. Yet, they just spent eight years dealing with a Republican Party that used the creditworthiness of the United States as a hostage to exact a ransom of concessions. A refusal to do the same in return is a form of weakness. And if they’re not prepared to go to the wall the way the Republicans were, they can at least insist that they not be asked to make any further concessions in return for their votes.

Democrats have warned that Republicans shouldn’t count on their votes.

“We’re not going to get what we want. We understand that. But if they think they’re going to get everything they want, then they’re going to have to get it with their votes,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)…

…With meager majorities in the House and Senate, the GOP can afford few defections to pass the debt limit increase on their own. Democratic leaders have warned Republicans not to attach unreasonable or unrelated measures to the debt ceiling, or they wouldn’t support it.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). “[But] we’re going to have to have some of our Republican colleagues step up to the plate on this issue.”

Hoyer said “if there is a clean debt limit extension, I think Democrats would be inclined not to vote against it. But that’s a big if.”

Agreeing to vote for a “clean” debt ceiling hike is a premature concession. It’s actually nothing different from what President Obama asked the Republicans to do. So, yes, it avoids hypocrisy. But it also avoids hardball. And the Freedom Caucus will still hold the rest of us hostage, demanding things that cannot otherwise pass Congress for lack of support.

The risk is that the Dems won’t ask for anything and then they’ll be asked to cast unpopular votes that spare their opponents from having to do the same. Their only reward is behaving responsibly on behalf of an irresponsible party so that they can take undeserved blame and receive very little credit from an ungrateful electorate.

It’s a sucker’s game and they should be tougher negotiators than this. If Trump wants more borrowing then he should come with a package of incentives, or he should ask his party (which is in the majority) to provide him his money.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at