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Plenty of Hypocrisy to Go Around on the Debt Limit

In the various articles about the debt limit yesterday, I noticed this one, accusing the President of hypocrisy because he voted against the debt limit increase back in 2006. Obama missed the debt limit increase votes in 2007 and 2008 because he was out on the campaign trail.

There’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around. I went back and looked at the 2006 vote. If you listen to this NPR story, you’ll see that Harry Reid basically told the majority party that if they needed to increase the debt limit, they could be responsible for gathering the votes. The final vote was 52-48 on pure party lines, with three Republicans (Tom Coburn, John Ensign and Conrad Burns) voting with all 45 Democrats. Reid, showing that it’s easier to keep party discipline when you’re in the minority, basically withheld all the Democratic votes. The then-Republican House got around this through a “deeming” resolution, so they didn’t have to go on the record for increasing the debt limit.

So you had 52 Republicans voting to increase the debt limit. And you had Senators like Chuck Grassley quoted as saying “If we don’t pass it, government doesn’t function. And who wants to shut down the government? I can tell you, I learned a lesson in 1995. Don’t plan on shutting down the government. It doesn’t work.” Grassley will likely vote against raising the debt limit this time around. Orrin Hatch said at the time, “Well, we have no choice. We’re going to have to do it because of the way the budget system works… it can be misconstrued so therefore it’s a tough vote to cast but it has to be done. Nothing else you can do.” Hatch will vote against the increase, too. Heck, Jim DeMint voted to increase the debt limit in 2006.

This is a habitual feature on the debt limit vote. Note that Reid in 2006 did not force a cloture vote, but merely allowed Republicans to carry the full burden of increasing the debt limit. Having to carry the votes on the debt limit is historically kind of a burden of leadership. Reid wanted amendments to the bill (particularly reinstituting paygo) as a condition for letting Democrats vote for it, essentially similar to what Republicans are calling for now. But in 2006, Senate Republicans did not let amendments come to the floor or even any debate on the vote.

So you can spare me the hypocrisy talk. The deficit is about the most hypocritical subject in Washington, and this debt limit vote sits at the heart of that. The difference that I see here is that the new Republicans are enamored of the idea, as they were in 1995, of shutting down the government or causing a government default, and Democrats, at least in the House, don’t have the numbers to carry the increase through on their own.

This vote is coming soon. The national debt tipped above $14 trillion at the end of 2010. The limit is currently set at $14.3 trillion. So each side can bitch and moan about hypocrisy, or they can play games, or they can just go ahead and pass the increase.

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David Dayen

David Dayen