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Time Is Running Out for Dems to Combat GOP Threat to Social Security, Medicare

House Democrats urge Pelosi and Schumer to permanently undo the threat posed by the debt limit.

Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi speaks to members of the press as Senate Minority Leader Sen. Charles Schumer listens at the U.S. Capitol on August 4, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

With Republicans threatening to use an impending fight over the debt ceiling to force cuts to Social Security and Medicare, Democratic leaders are facing growing pressure from progressives and rank-and-file lawmakers to head off the GOP ploy by significantly raising or eliminating the arbitrary federal borrowing limit.

A group of House Democrats led by Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) is collecting signatures for a letter urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to use the dwindling months of the current Congress to “take legislative action that will permanently undo the threat posed by the debt limit.”

“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,” reads the letter, which has thus far been signed by Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y), John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), and several others.

“It is no secret that Republicans will weaponize the debt ceiling the first chance they get,” the letter adds. “In our view, the state of the U.S. economy is simply far too important for us to allow a scenario in which Republicans are able to even have the option to put our standing on the global stage in jeopardy for some perceived political gain.”

The Democrats’ call, first reported Friday by Punchbowl News, is backed by the progressive advocacy groups Indivisible and Social Security Works.

Potential solutions mentioned in the letter include authorizing the U.S. Treasury Department to unilaterally raise the debt limit — which dictates how much money the federal government can borrow to meet its obligations — and permanently eliminating the ceiling, a step progressives have long supported.

As Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute wrote in a blog post amid last year’s debt ceiling clash — which Democrats ultimately ended without GOP support by suspending the filibuster to raise the ceiling — the limit “serves no good economic purpose and plenty of malign ones.”

Bivens argued that the “leverage the debt ceiling provides to those looking to enforce austerity is its greatest — and often most-overlooked — danger,” pointing to the GOP’s past success in securing passage of economically damaging legislation during debt limit fights.

“It is obvious that the U.S. should join the vast majority of rich countries around the world who don’t have a debt ceiling,” Bivens wrote. “It would be most straightforward if Congress would abolish it straightaway.”

Fresh calls for Democrats to put a stop to the annual fights over the debt ceiling come as Republicans are vocally threatening to oppose raising the current borrowing limit of around $31.4 trillion — which the government is set to hit sometime next year — in order to force spending cuts, specifically targeting Social Security and Medicare.

“I think Republicans are uniformly in support of using that moment as an opportunity to do something about spending,” Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) told CBS News on Thursday, just two days after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) made similar comments in an interview with Punchbowl.

Time is running out for Democrats to diffuse the GOP threat to Social Security, Medicare, and the entire U.S. economy.

The Boyle letter stresses that with the November midterms less than three weeks away, the makeup of the next Congress is “not yet known.” If Democrats lose the House or the Senate, the post-election lame-duck session will be the last chance they get to act without needing GOP support.

Whether Democrats will seize the opportunity to prevent Republican hostage-taking is far from clear. Two Democratic aides told Semafor’s Joseph Zeballos-Roig on Thursday that it is “unlikely the party will act in the lame-duck.”

“It’s within their power to pass a party-line bill before the next Congress that would effectively eliminate the debt ceiling by raising it to an astronomically high number, but members fear being attacked for the vote,” Zeballos-Roig reported.

In a column on Thursday, The New Republic’s Matt Ford lamented that “Democrats could end this farce at any time and have not yet done so.”

“I don’t mean to deny culpability on the Republicans’ part in this state of affairs,” Ford wrote. “It is absolutely the case that they can quite simply vote not to plunge the country into an economic depression when given the chance.”

“But if January rolls around, a Republican-led Congress sweeps into power, and Democrats effectively hand over the hostage, the rope to tie them up with, and the gun to press to their left temple,” he added, “they are the ones who will be truly responsible for what happens next.”

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