House Democrats are slamming Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) this week after he demanded steep spending cuts as part of negotiations with President Biden to lift the debt limit.
They’re pointing to the trillions of dollars piled onto the debt under Republican administrations, wondering aloud why GOP leaders didn’t prioritize cuts when they had the power to do so.
“These people are such hypocrites,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Tuesday morning. “They don’t care about the deficit; they don’t care about debt. Every Republican president has increased the deficit, but the thing is, what have they used it for? They’ve used it to give tax cuts to the wealthiest.”
McCarthy, as part of the process that won him the Speaker’s gavel, had promised his conservative detractors he would oppose a debt ceiling hike unless it came with Democratic concessions to slash federal spending.
On Monday, McCarthy doubled down, delivering a brief speech in the Capitol — a prebuttal to Biden’s State of the Union speech scheduled for Tuesday night — in which he said Republicans will seek spending reductions that put Washington “on a path to a balanced budget.”
“The greatest threat to our future is our national debt,” McCarthy said.
The government has already hit the $31.4 trillion debt limit, and the Treasury Department has warned that the “extraordinary measures” it is using to stave off a default will exhaust themselves over the summer. Raising the ceiling does not authorize new government spending but simply allows the Treasury to borrow funds to pay the obligations Congress has already approved, going back decades.
The vote was once routine, but Republicans more recently have used it as leverage to fight for reductions in federal spending — and McCarthy said Monday it was an appropriate arena for that debate.
“We must return Washington to a basic truth: Debt matters,” he said. “The debt limit is one of the most important opportunities Congress has to change course.”
That warning is similar to the alarms sounded by Republicans under former President Obama, when GOP leaders characterized deficit spending as an existential threat to the country’s economic health — a debate that led to a debt limit showdown, a downgrading of the U.S. credit rating and, eventually, the adoption of the Budget Control Act of 2011.
The GOP’s deficit concerns were virtually absent, however, under the George W. Bush administration, which inherited a multitrillion-dollar budget surplus and turned it into a multitrillion-dollar deficit — largely through tax cuts, a Medicare expansion, and funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, none of which were paid for. And Republicans were mostly silent on fiscal matters again under former President Trump, who grew deficit spending substantially — largely with another tax cut package — even before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic.
“You could raise $300 billion in revenue by taxing billionaires. And why wouldn’t you do that, if you’re really interested in any path forward that doesn’t hurt people?” Jayapal asked. “It’s just a big hypocrisy that they care about this issue.”
McCarthy has not specified which federal programs Republicans will seek to slash but has said they won’t go after Social Security or Medicare, raise taxes, or cut lethal defense programs.
If that recipe stands, it would mean enormous cuts for the remaining portion of the discretionary budget — cuts so steep that Democrats predict GOP leaders would never even propose them, let alone adopt them.
“If he’s going to be serious on those parameters, he needs to tell us exactly what he’s going to cut,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.). “Because if you’re taking defense and Social Security and Medicare off the table, you’re going to have to go very, very deep into those remaining parts of the budget. And I doubt that Mr. McCarthy or anyone else would have the stomach to actually reveal the specific cuts that that would entail.”
“This is theater,” Huffman added. “He’s trying to get us to negotiate against ourselves.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), senior Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, is already sounding similar warnings about the effects such cuts would have on the nondefense discretionary budget, which includes countless federal programs, from NASA and the national parks to public health and veterans benefits.
“If that’s what these folks want to do, is to go after all that working families rely on in terms of services — that’s a pretty extraordinary move,” DeLauro told The Hill late last month. “Now, I don’t know what is being suggested — I want to see what can be worked out — but I am not going to watch cuts, at NIH [National Institutes of Health], education, apprenticeships, the whole nine yards.”
McCarthy has vowed that Republicans won’t let the partisan impasse impede the government’s ability to pay its bills — “Defaulting on our debt is not an option,” he said Monday — and Democrats tend to agree that some compromise will be secured before then.
“As we get closer to the actual default, cooler heads will prevail and we’ll get through this,” Huffman said. “But he needs to kind of run this out for his caucus.”
Still, others are wondering how McCarthy will thread the needle to satisfy the demands of conservatives, who are insisting on cuts, and those of Biden and liberal Democrats, who are warning against taking the debt limit “hostage.”
“I don’t know how they’re going to get out of this, because they’re painting themselves into a corner,” Jayapal said. “And at the end of the day, we are going to need a clean debt ceiling bill.”