'Toxic brinkmanship': Democrats brace for debt-ceiling fight if GOP retakes control of Congress

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters) (Elizabeth Frantz / reuters)

With Republicans poised to retake control of one or both houses of Congress in the November midterm elections, Democrats are scrambling to to find a way to avert a debt-ceiling fight that threatens to effectively undo much of what the Biden administration has accomplished in its first two years.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats, told the New York Times on Thursday that it would be a “wise course of action” for the party to try to pass legislation to raise the $31.4 trillion U.S. debt limit during the lame-duck session if Republicans succeed in retaking control of the House or Senate.

“Under normal circumstances, we’re not going to have to raise the debt ceiling until the fall or winter of 2023, and if Democrats can retain control over the House and the Senate, I think that’s what we’ll do,” Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, told the Times.

Without any legislative maneuvering, the federal government could run out of money early next year, inviting a flirtation with default at a time when the U.S. economy could be facing a recession.

In October, 31 House Democrats sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Chuck Schumer decrying the “toxic brinkmanship” of their Republican colleagues and seeking to avert future debt-ceiling fights through legislative means while the party still controls both chambers of Congress.

“The only hope of avoiding these potential repercussions is for us to implement a solution more permanent and reliable than the current practice of hastily taking action each time we approach the dollar amount of the debt limit or the expiration of an enacted suspension,” Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., wrote in the letter to Pelosi and Schumer.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters) (Evelyn Hockstein / reuters)

“If the counterintuitive nature of the current debt ceiling process is not reason enough to drive change, then the prospect of Republicans sending our economy into default for political gain should be,” Boyle added. “Republicans have repeatedly signaled that they are willing and eager to use the debt limit as a bargaining tool if given the opportunity, and we should take them at their word.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has made clear that Republicans plan to use the threat of refusing to raise the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip in order to obtain funding cuts to programs the party’s rank and file oppose.

“You can’t just continue down the path to keep spending and adding to the debt. And if people want to make a debt ceiling [for a longer period of time], just like anything else, there comes a point in time where, okay, we’ll provide you more money, but you got to change your current behavior," McCarthy said last month. "We’re not just going to keep lifting your credit card limit, right? And we should seriously sit together and [figure out] where can we eliminate some waste? Where can we make the economy grow stronger?”

On Thursday, former President Donald Trump fumed when asked about the idea floated by some Democrats that Congress could simply eliminate the debt limit altogether.

“It’s crazy what’s happening with this debt ceiling. Mitch McConnell keeps allowing it to happen. I mean, they ought to impeach Mitch McConnell if he allows that,” Trump told conservative radio host John Fredericks. “Frankly, something has to be — they have something on him. How he approves this thing is incredible.”

So far, President Biden has also been cool on the idea of eliminating the debt ceiling. Asked about various proposals being floated by members of his party to do away with it permanently, Biden said in October that such a move would be “irresponsible.”

“You mean, just say we don't have a debt limit?” Biden said. “No. That would be irresponsible.”

Yet the funding for one of Biden's signature achievements, the Inflation Reduction Act, will be made available over the next 10 years, potentially making its climate change provisions vulnerable if a GOP-controlled Congress decides to play hardball with the debt ceiling.

Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders. (David Becker/Getty Images for MoveOn and NextGen America ) (David Becker via Getty Images)

“All the new subsidies that have been created as part of the reconciliation bill known as the Inflation Reduction Act, one big question is: Are [Republicans] willing to allow those all to go forward? Because if you have Republican control and a Democratic president, there’s going to be some big fights about budgeting,” James Coleman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, told Yahoo News. “Does the Republican Congress say, You know what, we need to save money, and this is one of the areas where we’re looking to stop so much spending, to rein in inflation, to get the budget in a healthier situation?”

McCarthy has also already signaled that U.S. military funding for Ukraine will be under scrutiny by a Republican-controlled House.

“I think people are going to be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” McCarthy told Punchbowl News. “They just won’t do it. ... It’s not a free blank check.”

A growing number of Democrats and their allies fear that the GOP won’t be content with gutting funding for measures to address climate change, COVID or weapons for Kyiv.

“I think Democrats have got to be very, very strong in making it clear that Republicans cannot hold hostage the entire world economy in a desire to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” Sanders told the Times.