Nothing makes Republicans laser focus on the debt ceiling like the election of a Democratic president.
It’s a stark contrast to how this is handled in other circumstances. While Republicans are generally less likely to vote for adjusting the debt ceiling than Democrats, the debt ceiling was suspended three times without much fuss during the Donald Trump administration, even as the national debt continued to soar. (The Trump administration was on a similar trajectory to the Barack Obama administration even before the coronavirus pandemic sparked a sharp increase in spending.)
A review of all the debt ceiling votes this century shows how GOP votes fall off a cliff when there’s a Democrat in the White House.
In the 10 debt ceiling votes under a Republican administration, an average of 65 percent of House Republicans and 74 percent of Senate Republicans voted in favor of adjusting or suspending it. But in Democratic administrations, those numbers decline to 24 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
And those numbers actually undersell the decline. That’s because they include two instances in which the GOP ultimately delivered a strong number of votes, but only after going further than ever in taking things to the brink — in 2011 and 2013. (In the earlier situation, they ultimately struck the “sequester” deal with the Obama administration, while in the later fight they gave up when their effort failed, on the eve of a default.)
If you exclude those two votes, the average percentages of Republicans voting to adjust the debt ceiling under a Democratic president drop to 16 percent in the House and just 9 percent in the Senate.
On the other side of the coin, Democratic support for such measures significantly declines under GOP presidents — but the decline isn’t as sharp, and majorities overall have still supported the increases. Under Democratic presidents, an average of 86 percent of House Democrats and 98 percent of Senate Democrats voted for debt ceiling increases. Under Republican presidents, those numbers drop to 51 percent and 58 percent, respectively.
The reason the parties’ declines are anywhere close to comparable is what happened during the George W. Bush administration. Virtually no House Democrats voted for raising the debt ceiling in 2002, 2003 and 2004, when they cried foul over the cost of the Iraq War and the Bush tax cuts. And Senate Democrats were united in opposition in 2003, 2004 and 2006.
Democrats also sought some concessions during the Trump years — a contrast to their current posture that the debt ceiling increase should be “clean.”
But in those cases, they never truly threatened a default, because they declined to wield the filibuster; that didn’t truly begin until Republicans did so during the Obama administration. These votes were largely symbolic, cast with the knowledge that a debt ceiling increase or suspension would be carried by GOP votes.
The difference we see between how Republicans and Democrats wield opposition votes — as a symbolic protest, or as a real threat — is reinforced by what we’ve seen play out when the opposition party’s votes were actually necessary to pass a debt ceiling raise — that is, when government is split.
When there is a Republican president and Democrats hold at least one chamber, Democrats have provided nearly as many votes as Republicans. But when there is a Democratic president and Republicans control at least one chamber, the GOP provides significantly fewer votes. In the latter scenario, the percentage of Republicans voting “yes” is about 30 points lower than Democrats in the House, and nearly 60 points lower in the Senate.
As the Bush administration votes and the standoffs in 2011 and 2013 show, there are nuances in all of these numbers. The final votes aren’t totally indicative of the actual level of opposition.
That’s because sometimes concessions are sought and even awarded, to varying degrees. There are also mitigating circumstances, and sometimes the debt ceiling increases have been tucked into related bills.
Democrats provided the bulk of the votes for raising the debt ceiling three times under GOP presidents, in fact: twice in 2008 during the financial crisis late in the Bush administration, and in 2019 when many Republicans were uneasy about a budget deal Trump struck with Democrats.
Those cases show Republicans have been willing to vote against raising the debt ceiling even under GOP presidents, depending upon the circumstances. The real difference, though, is in how hard they push. And this time around, they seem motivated to push hard again, just like the last time they wielded the power to do so under a Democratic president.