Politics

Why the left held its fire on no-win debt deal

Elizabeth Warren doesn’t like much at all about the deal to raise the debt ceiling. The only reason she might vote for it is hardly an endorsement: default would be worse.

“We have to weigh the consequences of default,” the progressive Massachusetts senator said in an interview, “against the pain that Republicans are trying to impose on hungry Americans, students, our climate and the Republicans’ constant enthusiasm for protecting billionaire tax cheats.”

Warren’s ambivalence about a deal to raise the debt ceiling into early 2025, which Democrats never even wanted to negotiate, is coursing through the party’s left flank. Progressives are facing a no-win choice of voting against raising the debt ceiling or voting for some spending constraints and avoiding default. Even as they complain, many say that President Joe Biden got the best deal he could.

And Warren’s not the only one weighing whether the deal is better than the alternative. Even some liberals who are planning to vote against the bill acknowledge it’s better than default. Typically, it’s just Republicans who are hard to woo on lifting the debt ceiling — but this time Democrats are also agonizing over what to do.

Still, it’s a more positive sentiment than Biden and Democratic leaders faced two weeks ago, when Warren and dozens of other progressives were calling for the president to invoke the 14th Amendment rather than accede to Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s demands. The speaker got modest budget caps and new benefit restrictions, but Democrats likely would have had to fight those battles in the fall anyway, when Congress negotiates its annual spending bill.

“This is the weirdest legislation that anybody has ever been asked to vote on since I got here,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). “Nobody seems to support all of it. Everyone has problems with parts of it. But the macro alternative is absolutely indigestible.”

With a Democratic president in office, the relatively low-key opposition on the left reflects a subdued mood among progressives. Few Democrats want to blame Biden for negotiating a bad deal, which would only accelerate party infighting ahead of a possible rematch between him and former President Donald Trump.

And many liberal Democrats realize that in a divided government, the big ideas of 2021 and 2022 are no longer achievable. Instead, they must protect the legislative achievements they already passed.

“Let’s keep the focus where it should be, which is the hostage-taking Republicans,” said Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who opposed the legislation. “We are not voting against the president. We are not voting for default. We are voting for working people and poor people across this country who should have never been taken hostage.”

On the face of it, this bill is a nightmare for progressives: It restricts non-defense spending, greenlights a fossil fuel project, ends the pause on student loan payments and imposes work requirements on some people receiving SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps.

Thankfully for Biden and congressional leaders, many on the left could vote no and the deal would still succeed. What’s more, some progressives were quick to dispense with the uncertainty altogether.

“Not a hard call,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) of his support.

The fact that the debt deal hasn’t inspired a liberal revolt ahead of the 2024 presidential election is a victory for Biden — and it reflects the careful relationship he’s built with progressives since the 2020 primary, when he sought to unify the party in a way that Hillary Clinton had failed to four years earlier.

The debt agreement passed the House 314-117 Wednesday night, with more Democrats supporting it than Republicans.

The strange-bedfellows partnership between the dealmaking president and progressive lawmakers has continued while he’s been in office, with Biden linking arms with the left as he sought to pass party-line legislation like $1.9 trillion in Covid aid and Democrats’ huge climate, health care and tax law. So when Biden undercut his party’s “no negotiations” stance on the debt ceiling, there was some earned goodwill he might not have had 10 years ago, during his tenure as vice president.

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) will oppose the debt bill, and many members of Jayapal’s caucus voted against it. But she and other progressive leaders didn’t whip members against it. Meanwhile, progressive organizations are mixed, with some like Our Revolution and the Working Families Party urging members to oppose the bill, while others such as Indivisible aren’t actively lobbying their allies on the Hill.

Even some liberal “no” votes still want the debt package to pass; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said that while she opposes the deal, “we’re going to work as a team to make sure that we prevent default.”

“The Democrats should supply the votes needed to get to 218, but we don’t have to supply any more than that. … We should be clear that this is not a bill that reflects fundamentally Democratic values,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.).

Senate progressives may land differently from their House counterparts. House Democrats could afford to lose more votes on a deal negotiated by the Republican leadership, while in the Senate, leaders are hoping they can keep down the defectors.

“People are prepared with some disappointment to support it,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “The looming default is a compelling force.”

Several progressives said they have been in constant communication with the White House, talking with Biden counselor Steve Ricchetti, climate adviser John Podesta, chief of staff Jeff Zients and economic chief Lael Brainard, among others. They said the message from Biden’s team to the left is, effectively, that the debt deal could have been much worse.

There was an understanding from the White House that “some will vote no,” said Khanna. And Jayapal asserted the White House actually appreciated the public pushback from progressives because it helped give Biden more leverage.

“I don’t think gritting of teeth is even the right description,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a top Biden ally, when asked how he’d characterize Senate Democrats with reservations about the deal. “As members of my caucus become clearer on the actual contours of the final agreement, the number of votes will solidify.”

Even as they have criticized the deal, some liberals in Congress said they appreciated, if begrudgingly, that the president and his aides managed to remove many of the GOP’s most conservative demands from consideration. The alternative, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said, “would have just been so hurtful to millions upon millions of people. But it also doesn’t mean that we landed in the right place either.” Bush opposes the deal.

So as Warren deliberates how she herself will vote, her mind is already on how to avoid this next time.

“Democrats need to make it a top priority just to get rid of this debt ceiling. The Republicans have shown us enough times now how they plan to use it,” she said. “And if we don’t learn from that, shame on us.”

Progressives aren’t happy with the deal President Joe Biden struck with Republicans. But given that or default, they’re not revolting.  

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