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What Democrats and Republicans can learn from the 2011 debt ceiling showdown

What Democrats and Republicans can learn from the 2011 debt ceiling showdown


The debate around raising the debt ceiling sounds eerily similar: Newly elected House Republicans, eager to confront the Democratic president in the White House, refused to raise the debt limit without cuts to federal spending.

Negotiations over the debt ceiling consumed Washington in 2011, a high-stakes showdown between the Obama White House and the new generation of “tea party” House Republicans.

“Now we’re getting down to the real hard stuff: I’ll trade you my bicycle for your golf clubs,” the chief negotiator, Vice President Joe Biden, said at the time.

But weeks of tense talks between Biden and the House Republicans collapsed that summer, sending Washington careening toward a fiscal crisis. When Republicans in Congress refused to raise the debt ceiling, the government risked a catastrophic default and suffered a devastating credit downgrade, a first in the nation’s history.

Lessons learned from the debt ceiling standoff more than a decade ago are rippling through Washington, as the White House and Congress brace for another fiscal showdown — one that appears headed toward a very similar outcome. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to budge.

“The whole debate is a façade,” said William Gale, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution who wrote “Fiscal Therapy: Curing America’s Debt Addiction and Investing in the Future,” a book on the U.S. debt.

“That was the height of the ‘tea party’ stuff and they wanted to flex their muscles, but it’s just such a stupid way to try to do it — because you don’t really want to risk the good credit rating of the United States government,” Gale said. “I suspect most of these guys already knew it.”

The Treasury Department has notified Congress that it’s time to again raise the nation’s debt ceiling, now at $31 trillion, to allow more borrowing to pay off the country’s accumulated bills. Treasury said it can start taking extraordinary measures to keep paying the bills, but the money will run out by June.

Raising the nation’s debt ceiling had been a routine matter historically, a final task after Congress had authorized federal spending and appropriated the money needed to pay for the country’s various programs and services.

But that all changed when the Republican tea party came to town after the 2010 election.

Saying Americans were “taxed enough already,” the tea party House Republicans arrived…

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