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Biden dismisses calls for abolishing debt limit

Some Democrats, getting increasingly nervous about GOP rhetoric, call for action in lame-duck session

President Joe Biden addresses the media Thursday before boarding Marine One for a trip to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
President Joe Biden addresses the media Thursday before boarding Marine One for a trip to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Joe Biden on Friday rejected a push from congressional Democrats to get rid of the statutory debt ceiling, calling the idea of doing so “irresponsible.”

Biden’s statement comes as Democrats are bracing for a showdown expected late next year with Republicans over the federal borrowing limit deadline. Republicans see this negotiation as an opportunity to push for their policy goals if they win the majority in the House, and some Democrats want the party to take action during the lame duck session to avoid this scenario. 

A group of House Democrats led by Pennsylvania Rep. Brendan F. Boyle have drafted a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer urging passage of a “permanent solution” to the debt limit during the upcoming lame duck session. 

“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,” Boyle wrote. 

Boyle suggested his legislation authorizing the Treasury Secretary to raise the debt limit unilaterally or to repeal the federal debt limit altogether. The first proposal, co-sponsored by House Budget Chair John Yarmuth, D-Ky., among others, has more support than the second, though Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., is a notable supporter of Boyle’s debt ceiling repeal bill.

[House might take up bill to shift debt limit power to Treasury]

“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 wrote. “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.” 

Biden spoke to reporters Friday after his administration published final budget results for fiscal 2023 showing the deficit was half that of the prior year’s. He was asked specifically about proposals to eliminate the debt ceiling, but not about ceding that authority to the Treasury Department.

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

Boyle is considered a front-runner to succeed Yarmuth, who is retiring, as the top Democrat on House Budget. Other signatories on Boyle’s letter include Yarmuth and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York.

Cash crunch starting mid-2023

Biden signed legislation in December 2021 raising the debt limit by $2.5 trillion to $31.4 trillion. The Bipartisan Policy Center currently estimates that the federal government will reach that limit in 2023, most likely in the second half of the year.

[House clears $2.5 trillion debt limit increase, ending fiscal drama]

The House Democrats’ lame-duck session push to eliminate the debt ceiling is unlikely to succeed with Biden’s opposition and the need for at least 10 Senate Republicans to join Democrats in that chamber.

But the president also made it clear he’s not going to cut any deals to raise the debt limit that would include cutting cherished entitlement programs. “Let me be really clear, I will not yield,” Biden said Friday. “I will not cut Social Security. I will not cut Medicare. No matter how hard they work at it.”

House Republicans are increasingly eyeing the upcoming debt limit showdown to push their aims.

While they haven’t gone so far as to suggest broadly cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits, several have suggested changes such as raising the the eligibility age for future retirees and making the programs less generous for wealthier beneficiaries.

The Republican Study Committee, the largest bloc of House GOP conservatives, included those and other changes in their fiscal 2023 budget proposal. Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., the RSC chairman, told CBS News Thursday that the party should use the upcoming debt limit as a negotiating tool. 

“It’s a major leverage point for the House Republican majority to use to control spending,” Banks said. “We’ve seen the national debt now surpass $31 trillion. It is a key driver of inflation.” 

Banks said Republicans are uniformly in favor of using the upcoming debate to push for spending caps, balanced budgets and cutting discretionary spending. 

“We have to use a moment like that to do things that the administration wouldn’t otherwise do, the Democrats don’t support,” Banks told CBS. 

At least one Republican agrees with top Democrats that taking the debt limit off the table, at least for a couple years, is a good idea.

Retiring Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who’s been a thorn in the side of former President Donald Trump and GOP leaders, told reporters Thursday that he’d support suspending the debt limit until 2024 or beyond. He said he fears the ability of a small group of hard-liners to hold GOP leaders “hostage” to their demands if they emerge from the midterm elections with only a slim majority next year.

John T. Bennett and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report. 

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