Even as Joe Biden appears to have pushed off reaching the next debt limit until 2025, top Democrats on Capitol Hill say what he really needs to do is what he should have done last fall: Come out in favor of a drastic change to strip Congress of this power forever.
Given the current math in the chamber, every senator in the Democratic Caucus would need to support such a change. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he couldn’t get votes from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin or Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (who continues to caucus with Democrats, despite leaving the party).
But Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Pennsylvania Rep. Brendan Boyle – along with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others – told CNN that this time around was a breaking point.
After years of obsessing mostly on his own over changing the debt limit, racking up trivia like how the process was an inadvertent fluke of World War I, Boyle said he started feeling the change three weeks ago, when he stood up after a presentation about expected cuts at a dinner of 50 House Democrats and pleaded, “We absolutely have to resolve here and now, this is the last time we go through this craziness.”
Boyle, a longtime and committed Biden ally, said he wasn’t expecting the loud round of applause that night, or the steady stream of colleagues who have come up to him on the House floor since asking to sign on to his bill, but he’s glad to have it, even as White House spokesperson Michael Kikukawa ducked a firm answer on whether Biden would support the change. The president’s focus, Kikukawa said, remains preventing default, and “other options are a question for another day.”
Originally Boyle backed eliminating the debt limit entirely. But over the years, he refined the proposal in an attempt to broaden its appeal, and his most recent bill gives the administration the authority through the Treasury Department to raise the debt limit, while retaining Congress’s ability to override that decision if it wants to actively force the issue.
Calling the change “a reasonable thing for us all to consider once we get through this manufactured MAGA madness and the debt default that they put us on the brink of considering,” Jeffries said in an interview amid the negotiations that he “absolutely” wants it to be at the top of the agenda the next time Democrats are in control of the House, Senate and White House – which he’s hoping will be after next year’s elections, though could be decades away.
“We can’t just make it through the crisis once again and mop our brows and say, ‘Phew, this is done,’” Warren said in an interview. “It’s not done until we get rid of the debt ceiling permanently.”
Asked if she wants to hear Biden say that after he signs this deal, Warren said, “I want to hear everyone say it.”
Warren and Boyle have been trading what the Massachusetts senator calls “spicy” text the last few weeks – “I told you so”s to each other about the debt ceiling that they’re trying to hold off from screaming publicly.
“The single biggest reason why I, along with a few others who are also in the fight, were so adamant that we needed to do this in lame duck was exactly to prevent this moment that we are in,” Boyle said. “It clearly was a massive mistake and missed opportunity that all Democrats need to learn from and resolve that never again will we be in this position.”
For most of the seven years that Boyle has been refining his bill to strip debt limit authority from Congress, it was a lonely, quirky pursuit. Just before the midterms last year, 33 of his colleagues joined him in signing a letter urging the move. Several senior White House aides, including eventual lead negotiator Steve Ricchetti, told Boyle they’d love to be done with negotiating debt ceiling deals with Congress, if only he could figure out the path through the Senate.
Pelosi, who called Boyle’s proposal “fabulous” in an interview after leaving a Democratic Caucus meeting where the latest round of cuts were discussed, had an aide tracking votes in the Senate through the lame duck session last year, on the fleeting hope that there might be a groundswell to convince Schumer to move. She and Jeffries both pointed out that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had in 2011 supported a backdoor solution to that debt limit fight, which would have given then-President Barack Obama power to raise it on his own just that one time.
“This is ridiculous,” Pelosi said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Clearly Congress can’t handle it responsibly,” Jayapal said, adding that she expected many members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus which she leads would agree.
Several swing district Democrats, though, told CNN that they were wary of supporting a change, calling the debt limit authority an important check on the presidency and on spending, despite their opposition to how it was used this time.
Warren, who joined many other progressives in announcing she would be voting no on the deal because of the budget cuts involved despite being committed to the country not defaulting – a move that was possible because there were enough votes otherwise for it to pass – argued that the time for debate over spending was at the front end, not when the bills came due.
“There’s nothing that makes any sense about this process,” Warren said. “There’s a reason no other country on earth uses this process to get its bills paid. We should never be in a position where anyone at home or abroad questions whether or not the United States government will pay its debts.”
Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz dismissed the argument that fellow proponents of changing the debt ceiling process should take solace in a deal being reached this time.
“The best that defenders of this law can muster is, ‘Well, a global economic collapse didn’t happen this time,’” Schatz said. “Why take the risk? We just risked a catastrophe for what? Appropriations top lines? Increasing the age threshold for SNAP working requirements from 49 to 54? What a terrible, sick joke.”
The biggest problem in making a change, Boyle said, is probably attention span – for all the people who’ve been coming up to him lately to stay committed through whatever will come over next year’s elections, and possibly much longer until Democrats again have the power they didn’t use last year.
“Human beings have a tendency to forget. This has been such a torturous experience for my Democratic colleagues that I hope they will not forget,” Boyle said. “However you voted on this deal, the one thing we need to be fully united behind is the next time we are in charge, we need to never again be placed in this situation.”