Yes, lawmakers are about to do battle over America’s debt ceiling, the legal limit on how much the U.S. government can get from creditors to pay for projects and programs already approved by Congress — including “yes” votes from many of the same lawmakers now calling for national belt-tightening.
This particular confrontation was arranged in April, when Republicans — who regularly signed off on raising the ceiling as the national debt swelled about $8 trillion under President Donald Trump — signaled an intent to return to using the standoff to extract spending cuts.
Republicans have already started targeting President Biden’s ambitious (and expensive) effort to transform the role of government in America with major investments in infrastructure and a serious expansion of the social safety net.
Democrats don’t need Republican votes to raise the debt limit.
They could do so with their simple majority via the tactic known as reconciliation. But the GOP would be sure to try to exact a political price for the red ink in the 2022 midterms.
The debt ceiling in its modern form emerged in 1939, but originated in 1917 both as a way to curtail national borrowing and enable the executive branch to engage creditors without needing approval from Congress each and every time.
Fights over the debt ceiling have become regular features in Washington. They are such a regular occurrence The Washington Post some years ago did a tongue-and-cheek explainer about … debt-ceiling explainers.
My colleagues Tony Romm, Seung Min Kim and Mike DeBonis reported yesterday:
“The renewed Republican threats arrived only 10 days before a current agreement that suspends the debt ceiling is set to expire. If Congress cannot reach a deal to raise or suspend the ceiling by month’s end, the government would have to rely on what are known as ‘extraordinary measures’ to keep paying its bills. Such tactics could give lawmakers breathing room until October or November, according to a new analysis from the Congressional Budget Office, at which point the country would be at risk of default if it did not act.
The drama intensified earlier Wednesday, after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Punchbowl News that his party is unlikely to vote for an increase. Instead, he said Democrats should tackle it alone as part of a roughly $3.5 trillion budget deal that they plan to pass through a process known as reconciliation. The move would allow Democrats to advance spending priorities using 51 votes, rather than the normal 60, provided the entire party sticks together.”
My colleagues also delivered a very clear primer on national finances:
“The U.S. government spends much more money than it brings in through tax revenue, and that annual gap is known as the deficit. In 2021, the government is expected to spend $5.8 trillion and bring in $3.5 trillion in revenue, leaving a deficit of $2.3 trillion, according to CBO.
To finance the gap between spending and revenue, the Treasury Department borrows money by issuing debt. But the government can issue debt only up to the limit set by Congress, which is why the debt ceiling must be raised or suspended periodically. The government currently has more than $28 trillion in debt subject to the limit, and it is expected to pay $300 billion in interest on this debt in 2021, according to CBO.”
One feature of this regular political skirmish is the faction that, tired of the brinkmanship, calls on Congress to get rid of the debt ceiling altogether using a variety of means.
The White House yesterday declined to endorse that. Press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters “we are fully expecting Congress will raise the debt ceiling as they have numerous times over the last couple of years.”
It’s not clear precisely what would happen if somehow the limit were not raised, but The Washington Post had a nice explainer during the government shutdown over the debt ceiling in 2013.
After noting one early result would be missed payments — Social Security checks, money for contractors, etc. — Brad Plumer explained how things could get worse.
“A defense contractor might accept an IOU. A retiree who sees his Social Security check delayed might be less pleased. But the financial markets could be really unforgiving.
Many economists think it would be disastrous if the government ever missed an interest payment on the debt, like the ones due on Oct. 31 and Nov. 15. The global financial markets are structured around the notion that U.S. Treasuries are the safest asset in the world. If that assumption were ever called into question, havoc could ensue.
It ‘would be like the financial market equivalent of that Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell,’ [according to] Michael Feroli, chief economist at JP Morgan.”
What’s happening now
The Biden administration will impose new sanctions on Cuban officials following attacks on protesters. “Imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, the sanctions will initially affect what officials said were a small number of individuals from Cuba’s Interior Ministry and military forces,” Karen DeYoung reports. “The administration had been making its way toward implementing a new policy toward Cuba that would reverse many of the actions taken by Trump to restrict travel, trade and other forms of outreach. The Obama administration had expanded contacts when it reestablished diplomatic relations with Havana in 2015.
“But the ongoing upheaval in Cuba, including unprecedented, islandwide demonstrations that resulted in hundreds of arrests, government attacks against protesters and attempts to shut down the Internet communications that enabled demonstrations to be organized, have set the Biden administration on a new timetable and pushed it away from anything that could be seen as a concession to the communist regime. ... Biden ‘had State and Treasury drop everything they were doing and put something together in the space of a week.’ The sanctions freeze any assets under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibit U.S. travel, although they are most effective as a form of public naming and shaming. Biden has also ordered efforts to mobilize the international community to condemn the regime’s actions.”
Unemployment claims jumped last week, Eli Rosenberg reports. “The number of new claims grew to 419,000 from 368,000, the third time in six weeks that they had ticked up, according to data from the Department of Labor. Overall, the numbers have been falling gradually from the peaks at other stages of the pandemic, but they are still well above the average of pre-pandemic times”
To start your day with a full political briefing, sign up for our Power Up newsletter.
Lunchtime reads from The Post
- “Firing over Holocaust joke latest scandal exposing Japan’s elite, critics say,” by Simon Denyer and Michelle Ye Hee Lee: “The Tokyo Games have adopted the slogan ‘Unity in Diversity,’ while the Olympic Charter includes at least six references to fighting all forms of discrimination. So there was considerable embarrassment Thursday when organizers were forced to fire Kentaro Kobayashi, director of the Opening Ceremonies, just a day before the event is scheduled to take place. ... The latest scandal broke when a video surfaced of Kobayashi, a comedian, director and manga artist, making a joke referencing the Holocaust. ... Kobayashi, who was to oversee all the elements of the Ceremonies, issued a statement of apology.”
- “ ‘Somebody has to do the dirty work’: NSO founders defend the spyware they built,” by Elizabeth Dowskin and Shira Rubin: “It was a proposition that would change everything. Two 20-something Israeli entrepreneurs who had been running a small customer service start-up for mobile phones were at a client meeting in Europe in 2009 when they received a visit from law enforcement officials. ... The officials made an unexpected request. The agents said the Israelis’ technology, which helped carriers troubleshoot their customers’ smartphones by sending them an SMS link that enabled the carrier to access the phone remotely, could be useful for saving people’s lives. ... More than a decade later, the cybersecurity company that arose out of that fateful conversation — the NSO Group, an acronym based off the first names of the three founders — is at the center of a global debate over the weaponization of powerful and largely unregulated surveillance technology.”
- “Facebook and YouTube spent a year fighting covid misinformation. It’s still spreading,” by Gerrit De Vynck and Rachel Lerman: “On YouTube, the accounts of six out of 12 anti-vaccine activists identified by the Center for Countering Digital Hate as being responsible for creating more than half the anti-vaccine content shared on social media are easily searchable and still posting videos. On Facebook, researchers at the left-leaning advocacy group Avaaz ran an experiment in June in which two brand-new accounts it set up were recommended 109 pages containing anti-vaccine information in just two days. Vaccine rates in the United States have stalled and some cities are reinstituting mask recommendations as coronavirus cases rise again. ... Researchers agree that social media is playing a role. At the heart of the problem are the companies’ content-recommendation algorithms, which are still generally designed to boost content that engages the most people, regardless of what it is — even conspiracy theories.”
… and beyond
- “Operation Fox Hunt: How China exports repression using a network of spies hidden in plain sight,” by ProPublica’s Sebastian Rotella and Kirsten Berg: “China sends covert teams abroad to bring back people accused — justifiably or not — of financial crimes. One New Jersey family was stalked as part of a global campaign that takes families hostage and pressures immigrants to serve as spies. ... Launched in 2014, Operation Fox Hunt and a program called Operation Sky Net claim to have caught more than 8,000 international fugitives. The targets are not murderers or drug lords, but Chinese public officials and businesspeople accused — justifiably and not — of financial crimes. Some of them have set up high-rolling lives overseas with lush mansions and millions in offshore accounts. But others are dissidents, whistleblowers or relatively minor figures swept up in provincial conflicts.”
- “At 98 and facing cancer, Bob Dole reckons with legacy of Trump and ponders future of GOP,” by USA Today’s Susan Page: “Dole turns 98 years old Thursday and is battling lung cancer, but he is still outspoken about what's going on in the Washington he once helped lead — from the Keystone Pipeline to the need to protect the Senate filibuster. ‘Both sides use it,’ the former Senate majority leader noted of the parliamentary rule, then praised ‘the guy from West Virginia’ who is defending it. That would be Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. Dole decided on the spot that he'd like to meet Manchin — to invite him over for a chat, no big agenda, across party lines. Like the old days.”
On the Hill
Biden said eliminating the filibuster would “throw the entire Congress into chaos.”
- During the CNN town hall, Biden said he supports bringing back the “talking filibuster” but remains opposed to doing away with the Senate rule entirely, Felicia Sonmez reports.
- “ ‘I’ve been saying for a long, long time, the abuse of the filibuster is pretty overwhelming,’ Biden said in response to a question from an audience member on voting rights legislation. He noted that he has previously voiced support for a return to the talking filibuster, in which senators must actually speak uninterrupted on the Senate floor to block legislation. ‘I would go back to that, where you have to maintain the floor,’ Biden said. ‘You have to stand there and talk and hold the floor.’ ”
- “Biden has previously said he thinks the filibuster is a Jim Crow-era relic. At the same time, he has argued that it must be protected. ‘There’s no reason to protect it other than you’re going to throw the entire Congress into chaos and nothing will get done,’ Biden said Wednesday night.”
Republicans blocked debate on the infrastructure bill, but a final deal could solidify within days.
- “It was clear from the outset that Wednesday’s vote would fail. But Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) pressed ahead, hoping to signal to the senators crafting the deal that time was not unlimited as Democratic leaders scrambled to placate liberals impatient with the slow pace of the Senate talks,” Kim and Romm report. “Republicans, however, declined to proceed on a bill that is still unfinished, saying they needed until at least Monday to resolve lingering disagreements over the scope of the infrastructure package and how to pay for it.”
- “The failed vote leaves the chamber in many ways where it began: chasing a final consensus that has eluded lawmakers for months, while trying to beat a ticking legislative clock on the most ambitious piece of Biden’s first-year legislative agenda. The difference was that by late Wednesday, a final deal seemed within reach.”
“Lawmakers from both parties who helped hammer out the early contours of the $1 trillion package were still pledging to stick together with the goal of trying again next week.”
The House probe of the Jan. 6 insurrection fell apart after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) blocked two GOP members.
- Pelosi (D-Calif.) called on Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to name two new Republicans to the committee after refusing to appoint conservative Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Jim Banks (R-Ind.), a privilege she has as speaker, Marianna Sotomayor, Jacqueline Alemany and Karoun Demirjian report.
Quote of the day
“I don’t care if you think I’m Satan reincarnated. The fact is, you can’t look at that television and say nothing happened on the 6th. You can’t listen to people who say this was a peaceful march,” President Biden said last night during a CNN town hall, challenging Americans to reject conspiracy theories and accept that the Jan. 6 insurrection happened.
The delta variant is imperiling the federal government’s back-to-the-office plans.
- “The Biden administration’s effort to bring much of the massive federal workforce back to the office this fall is facing a new disruption just as the government was firming up detailed plans to move past the coronavirus pandemic,” Lisa Rein reports. “Hundreds of agencies submitted their return-to-office plans to the White House budget office to meet last Monday’s deadline, laying out how they would begin to phase out remote work for hundreds of thousands of employees after Labor Day, with a full return to federal offices planned by the end of the year. Detailed strategies for office cleaning, coronavirus testing, staggered work schedules and repositioned desks for social distancing were included, along with which jobs will be eligible for continued full- and part-time telework.”
- “But with the more contagious delta variant surging and sending tens of thousands of unvaccinated people to hospitals across the nation, trepidation over the reentry plans has risen among some Biden administration officials, people aware of the planning say.”
Biden pleads with unvaccinated Americans to get the shot as the virus surges.
- “Biden spoke at a pivotal moment in the pandemic, as new cases and deaths are far down from their peak. But the emergence of the coronavirus’s delta variant, along with the refusal of large parts of the population to get vaccinated, has prompted a resurgence in some states and fears of a major spike in the fall,” Anne Gearan and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. report. “Speaking to voters in Ohio at a town hall-style event broadcast by CNN, Biden was challenged on issues including the economy and gun laws. But the resurgent pandemic took up most of the discussion, and Biden — while careful not to assign blame — was blunt in making a distinction between those who are now at risk of hospitalization or death and those who are much less so.”
- “It’s real simple: We have a pandemic for those who haven’t gotten a vaccination,” Biden said.
- “Biden said he expected the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend that children under 12 returning to school next fall wear masks. He said the Food and Drug Administration probably fully would approve a vaccine around the beginning of the school year, rather than the current emergency authorization.”
- “But he stressed that those were guesses, not edicts. ‘I do not tell any scientists what they should do,’ Biden said. ‘I do not interfere.’”
As GOP supporters die of coronavirus, the party remains split on its vaccination message.
- To recap: House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), after months of waiting, got the shot and shared a photo of the moment. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) this week urged Americans to get the vaccine. Meanwhile, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) refused to tell a reporter whether she’s received the vaccine yet and was suspended from Twitter for spreading misinformation about the virus.
- Some Republicans at the state level remain firm in their opposition to the shot. Per ProPublica’s Jeremy Kohler: “In Tennessee, Republicans legislators threatened to shut down the state health department, saying it was targeting minors for mass vaccinations without the consent of parents. In Ohio, lawmakers allowed a doctor to testify at a legislative hearing last month that coronavirus vaccines could leave people magnetized (they can’t). During a hearing in the Montana Senate, a senator said he had read articles about ‘putting a chip in the vaccine.’ (There are no chips in vaccines.)" In Missouri, GOP legislators opposed vaccine efforts even as the state becomes a hot spot. State Rep. Bill Kidd, in a Facebook post, revealed that he got the virus. “And no, we didn’t get the vaccine,” he wrote in the post that has since been deleted. “We’re Republicans 😆”
Hot on the left
“Businesses condemned Georgia’s voting law, then gave thousands to its backers,” Isaac Stanley-Becker reports: “Comcast was one of several companies that raised alarm about the voting restrictions but then contributed more than $20,000 collectively between April and June of this year to Georgia politicians who voted for or publicly defended the legislation, according to an examination by Advance Democracy ... The findings are based on new campaign finance disclosures. They highlight how businesses have been thrust into a roiling debate over race and voting access, compelled by their customers to present themselves as bulwarks against GOP-led crackdowns inspired by Trump’s false claims about widespread voter fraud.”
Hot on the right
The Texas comptroller may blacklist Ben & Jerry’s over the company’s decision to not sell ice cream in the Palestinian territories. “The announcement by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s office comes two days after Ben & Jerry’s released a statement saying it will no longer sell ice cream in ‘Occupied Palestinian Territory’ — using the United Nations-recognized term to describe territories, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip, that have been occupied by Israel since 1967,” the Dallas Morning News reports. “Hegar said he has directed his staff to determine whether Ben & Jerry’s statement would violate Chapter 808 of the Texas Government Code, which prohibits the state from giving contracts to companies that support a boycott of Israel or an ‘Israeli-controlled territory.’ ”
Who dominates the Olympics?, visualized
The Olympic program has so many branches that even small countries can own a twig or two. Who will dominate what, and why? The clues are often in the history of the country, and the sport, Bonnie Berkowitz and Artur Galocha report.
Today in Washington
Biden will receive a briefing from the White House’s coronavirus response team at 1:15 p.m., and at 2:15 p.m. he will sign a bill that will add a new source of revenue for the Crime Victims Fund.
Vice President Harris will meet with DACA recipients, Dreamers without DACA, and immigration rights leaders at 12:15 p.m.
At 4 p.m., Biden and Harris will meet with union and business leaders to discuss the bipartisan infrastructure deal.
Simone Biles completed the world’s most difficult vault in practice earlier today. Biles “successfully trained her Yurchenko double pike vault during Thursday’s formal practice session at Ariake Gymnastics Centre. Biles had too much power and rolled backward on her first attempt, but then she nailed the vault, which has the highest difficulty value in the world,” Emily Giambalvo reports.
And Seth Meyers said the downfall of another Trump ally, Tom Barrack, shows that the former president's “America First” doctrine is “a total scam”: