Twenty House progressives lined up behind Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, their caucus chairwoman, on Wednesday afternoon to sound off about the debt limit. And their message could not have been clearer. “If we default, if we crash the economy, there is only one person to blame, and that is the speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy,” said Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state.
Democrats from both chambers of Congress have been largely boxed out of negotiations over raising the debt limit, the amount of money the government can borrow to pay its existing debt obligations, which the Treasury currently tallies at over $31 trillion. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has repeatedly said since April that the country will be unable to pay its debts as early as June 1.
A month ago, House Republicans leveraged Yellen’s deadline and the threat of national default to pass a bill by party-line vote tying increasing the debt limit to massive cuts to federal programs that help poor people and veterans. Every House Democrat voted against it, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the GOP bill is dead on arrival in the Senate.
Progressive House Democrats haven’t said a whole lot about all this, but finally, on Wednesday, they emerged with one voice. “So many Republicans would not be able to go back to their districts if this bill that they passed out of the House became law,” said Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who took umbrage at remarks by House Financial Services Chairman Patrick McHenry, who told reporters Tuesday that the only thing Republicans were willing to give Biden is raising the debt limit.
“That is not a negotiation,” said Omar. “Negotiations are give and take. [Republicans] are not negotiating. They are looking to waste time, play games, and make sure we default because they think that somehow that is going to be a political advantage that they will have in the coming elections.”
McCarthy tasked McHenry and Congressman Garret Graves of Louisiana with leading the House GOP negotiations with the White House team. Graves and McHenry have repeatedly said the nation has a spending problem when it comes to popular social programs like food stamps, education, and veterans benefits, all while refusing to acknowledge the role GOP tax cuts under Donald Trump for the superrich have had on exploding the federal deficit, and that the national debt rose nearly $8 trillion—from $20 trillion to $28 trillion—under Donald Trump. Republicans voted three times during Trump’s presidency to raise the debt ceiling.
“Instead of them recognizing the error of their ways, they want to protect tax cuts on private jets and make single moms pay for it, and that’s where we say no,” said Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been the most vocal (and viral) progressive voice in the debt limit negotiations so far.
The two-term New York City Democrat tweeted Tuesday night that McCarthy doesn’t have the votes in his GOP conference to pass a negotiated compromise bill in the House. The implication is that McCarthy will need at least some Democrats to get any compromise measure through.
Asked by CNN’s Manu Raju on Wednesday afternoon why House Republicans won’t offer a single concession to the Democrats on the debt limit, McCarthy tried to cast the Democrats as radical. “If AOC and Bernie Sanders is gonna run their party, that’s not my fault,” he said.
“Sorry, bud,” Ocasio-Cortez clapped back later that afternoon. “The only person here holding the entire U.S. economy hostage because they’ve completely lost control is you.”
Progressive caucus whip Greg Casar of Texas offered an analogy to describe McCarthy’s debt ceiling strategy. “They believe that they can burn the entire house down and blame it on the firefighters,” said the House freshman who represents parts of Austin. “Speaker McCarthy has given up his love of community and his love of country and replaced that with a love of corporate contributions.”
Congressman Jim McGovern said McCarthy and House Republicans are “playing to the cheap seats in their MAGA base” by proposing draconian cuts in social benefits to the most vulnerable Americans. “We’re not here to screw poor people,” said the Massachusetts Democrat, who took issue with McCarthy’s repeated (and unsubstantiated) claim that the Republican proposal simply seeks to get able-bodied Americans without dependents back into the workforce by kicking them off federal assistance.
“I asked the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and the chairman of the Budget Committee … who are these able-bodied adults without dependents who are not working?” said McGovern. “Not only did they have no clue, their staff had no clue. They haven’t done a hearing. They haven’t done any analysis. They don’t really give a damn.”
“The reality is, Americans are not going to forgive and forget them if there is a default,” said Omar of House Republicans. “They are the ones that are in charge of producing a bill that saves the American economy.”
No House minority ever has much leverage when it comes to hard bargaining. But at least it was good to see they have their voices and are fighting.