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Pittsburgh-area Democrats hope GOP will be punished in 2024 for debt-ceiling game of chicken

The U.S. Capitol dome.
J. Scott Applewhite
The U.S. Capitol.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. Sign up here to get it every Thursday afternoon.

On Wednesday night, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to raise the federal government’s debt ceiling — a move that, with the Senate following suit on Thursday evening, will most likely prevent cratering the global economy. And while we used to be able to take it as a given that Congress wouldn’t go out of its way to precipitate fiscal Armageddon, these days it arguably counts as a big win. And by a bipartisan 314-117 vote, no less!

Western Pennsylvania Congressman Mike Kelly, for one, was pleased, issuing a statement that hailed the vote as “a win for the American people.”

“I look forward to working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle … to avoid a crisis like this one in the future,” he added.

That scream you hear is Democrats protesting that if Kelly wants to avoid such crises, he only needs to speak with lawmakers on one side: his own.

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Raising the debt ceiling allows the government to pay for already-incurred expenses, thereby preserving the credit of the federal government. House Republicans used the threat of not raising the debt ceiling to extract concessions from the White House on items they couldn’t prevent otherwise. Among other things, they got a rollback of some earlier appropriations to the IRS, a move Kelly labeled as “defunding IRS agents.”

In all, the GOP extracted concessions worth a relatively small-bore $1.5 trillion over the next decade … out of a debt of nearly $32 trillion and rising. That fact prompted 71 Republican hardliners to vote “no” on a bill negotiated by their own leaders. (Federal budget experts say the IRS cuts likely reduced the deficit-fighting potential of the package, since they limit the agency’s ability to collect taxes that pay for government programs.)

Still, fellow western Pennsylvania Republican Guy Reschenthaler said the deal “gets America back on track — on Republicans’ terms.” It sets caps on future spending, after all, and will claw back some unspent federal COVID aid dollars.

Reschenthaler had an additional reason to celebrate. He’s the GOP’s deputy whip, which means he helped round up Republican votes in support of the deal. In a victory-lap interview with Politico, Reschenthaler boasted that, “We've been able to prove over and over again that … we can pass serious, major pieces of legislation.”

In fact, he credited a series of “listening sessions” with rank-and-file legislators for helping to formulate Republican proposals.

“That is where the framework came together,” he said.

Whether that results in good policy is another question. Among the policies Republicans sought was an expansion of work requirements for those who receive federal food aid. The budgetary impact of that requirement is expected to be modest, in part because while the deal would apply it to an older group of workers, the savings from doing so is offset by exemptions Democrats secured for veterans and the homeless. Some antihunger groups, meanwhile, worry the new rules will do outsized harm to vulnerable populations.

And politically speaking, the irony here is the deal did better among House members Reschenthaler didn’t lobby. More Democrats (165) supported the bill than did Republicans (149). That’s true even as Democrats in western Pennsylvania, at least, seem far less enthusiastic than their Republican peers.

Democrat Chris Deluzio, for one, was a reluctant yes. “It would have been unacceptable for us to default on our debt,” he told me a few minutes after casting his vote. “The cost of voting against it and having this country default was far too great.”

Deluzio could point to some wins by the Biden administration in negotiations, like language that ensured continued funding for a program to help veterans exposed to toxic chemicals released in burn pits.

Deluzio, himself a Navy veteran, blasted Republicans at a gathering of House progressive Democrats last week, saying that if they “didn't want to foot the bill for caring for veterans, they shouldn't have sent Americans off to 20 years of war” in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Republicans rejected those accusations, and in any case, funding for veterans’ care is included in the proposal the House backed Wednesday. But the issue still rankles Deluzio. “I can’t believe the Republicans were even willing to use veterans as a bargaining chip,” he told me.

Fellow Allegheny County Democrat Summer Lee was even less forgiving. She was one of 46 Democratic “no” votes, though she praised Biden for having drawn “a line in the sand [that] prevented Republicans from causing economic collapse. Without their negotiation this would’ve been far worse.”

Even so, she said, “I can not use the poorest people as a bargaining chip, and I can not reward Republican villainy and their extreme tactics with more votes than needed” to pass the bill.

That “more votes than needed” phrasing seems an acknowledgment that Lee’s vote was symbolic. And in fact there isn’t much difference between her and Deluzio’s thinking on the bill. Deluzio agreed that “I worry [that] every time the debt ceiling comes up, they’re going to use it to extract policy preferences that they otherwise couldn’t get.”

Deluzio says the best way to prevent that is for Americans to punish the GOP at the polls next year.

“The American people saw Republicans willing to slash all of government [to protect] massive tax cuts for billionaires and huge corporations, and holding our livelihoods and the economy hostage,” he said. “That tells you something about whether a party is serious about governing. And that’s the contrast you’re going to see for many months to come before the next set of elections.”

I mean, maybe? But it didn’t happen a decade ago, when a debt-ceiling crisis was followed by huge GOP wins in the 2014 midterm elections.

That may be the depressing counterpoint to the general relief that we aren’t risking blowing up the government’s creditworthiness this time. Whatever the bill’s fiscal or political impact, it’s hard to see a reason to believe this won’t all happen again.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.