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Opinion Democrats have a two-part plan to use the debt ceiling against Republicans

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in the House chamber on Jan. 4. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Sensing Republicans are on the verge of a blunder in their schemes to use the debt ceiling to hold the economy hostage and try to extract draconian spending cuts, the White House has developed a two-part response strategy. So far, it is paying off.

Part 1: Lay out the simple argument that Republicans are recklessly inviting an economic meltdown even by talking about a possible default. Part 2: Force House Republicans to put forward a plan on the table and watch as they struggle with the fallout.

The administration has already delivered on the first step. Appearing on MSNBC this month, Jared Bernstein, a member of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, warned, “Unless the debt ceiling is unconditionally increased … not only will you be in default, but the result will be, as you’ve mentioned, the loss of millions of jobs, but also a spiking in interest rates.” He added that breaching full faith and credit of the U.S. dollar would undermine one of the "most pristine currencies in the world.”

The White House and congressional Democrats have also pointed to the serious economic ramifications of the GOP’s theatrics during the 2011 standoff on the debt ceiling. As the Associated Press recounted: “When the August 2011 deadline came to raise the debt ceiling, only an eleventh-hour agreement with Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell and some Democrats tasking a ‘Super Committee’ to recommend further federal reductions ensured there would be no debt default. Spooked by the political crisis in Washington, the credit markets downgraded the nation’s credit ranking for the first time, upping the costs of future borrowing.”

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In highlighting the threat, the White House has already placed blame for a possible repeat of 2011 on the backs of MAGA House Republicans. President Biden can stand firm on his stance that the debt ceiling is nonnegotiable. And he can remind Republicans that they raised the debt ceiling unconditionally during the Trump administration three times — and they must raise it again or take full responsibility for the ensuing meltdown. This tactic heightens the perception that Republicans are merchants of chaos.

Next comes Part 2. Democrats — aided by Senate Republicans who have made clear they want no part of this reckless game of chicken — are daring Republicans to put forward a plan.

As Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor on Monday, “If House Republicans are serious about taking the debt limit hostage in exchange for spending cuts, the new rules that they adopted require them to bring a proposal to the floor of the House and show the American people precisely what kind of cuts they want to make. It’s not enough to hide behind the old GOP talking point about ‘wasteful spending’; when you’re in the majority, substance counts.”

He added for good measure: “Americans are going to be left with some pretty big questions. Republicans say they want spending cuts. Well, does that mean cuts to Social Security? Or Medicare? Or child care? Or Pell grants? Or our military? Or pay raises for our troops? Or funding police and law enforcement?”

Republicans have never taken much interest in fiscal sobriety when their party controlled the White House. This was especially true during the Trump administration, which as conservative economist Charles Blahous showed in a 2021 study, deserves a sizable share of the blame for deficits in recent years.

Yet when Democrats are in the White House, Republicans come up with all sorts of plans to slash spending, including entitlements. It was unpopular when Paul D. Ryan advocated such cuts in 2012 (even rank-and-file Republicans ran from the proposals); it would be just as politically disastrous for Republicans to try them again today.

In sum, Republicans are doing the Democrats’ job for them. The GOP is beckoning an economic catastrophe and seeking draconian cuts not even its own base wants. Why should Democrats stop them?