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Debt ceiling: What's the excuse for voting 'no'?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), one of the not-so-happy warriors behind the debt-ceiling deal. The reactions are rolling in to the debt-ceiling deal reached Sunday by President Obama and congressional leaders, and there are few surprises so far. Business-friendly groups and centrist think tanks are urging its passage. Some (but not all) liberal and conservative interest groups are opposed, saying that it either goes too far or not far enough.

At this point, though, it's the only plan that can pass by Tuesday, the day the Treasury Department says the federal government will hit a fiscal wall unless Congress raises the debt ceiling. So what's a lawmaker who doesn't like the deal to do when it reaches the House and Senate floor? Vote for it because it prevents a potential financial apocalypse? Vote against it and hope the other side prevails? Or vote against it and count on the other side to capitulate before the economy tanks?

Remember, raising the debt ceiling doesn't drive the country deeper into debt. The amount of borrowing is determined by annual budget, tax and spending bills, as well as the statutes that control benefit programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Refusing to raise the debt ceiling is just a way to renege on those decisions, and potentially to default on the debts already incurred.

Nevertheless, voting against an increase in the debt ceiling is a time-honored bit of demagoguery, although it's a privilege usually reserved for the minority party in Congress. That's because members of whichever party was in control in Washington could be counted on to hold their noses and vote for a higher limit. Even if they weren't the ones who'd passed the spending and tax bills that ran up the deficit, those commitments were theirs to keep.

When power is split in the capital, however, a different dynamic has applied, as the centrist Third Way think tank has pointed out. The last two times the debt limit was reached during a time of divided government, roughly equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate voted to raise it.

So what happens now? There seem to be only three ways for lawmakers to rationalize a vote against the debt-ceiling deal, regardless of how much they dislike its provisions.

One is to argue that it would be better to tell the Obama administration to shut down much of the government, with the targets chosen at its discretion, than to approve the proposed deal. Doing so would almost certainly cause U.S. debt to be downgraded, raising borrowing costs for the Treasury and many other borrowers whose rates are tied to T-bills.

Another is to argue that the Tuesday deadline is a bluff and that there's more time to negotiate. Even if that were true, however, one would have to believe that more negotiations would produce a better deal.

The third, available only to House Democrats, is to contend that the deal is filled with concessions to Republicans, so it’s up to the GOP to provide the votes for it. And if they can’t pass it, it will be the Republicans’ turn to make concessions to Democrats.

None of these positions seem reasonable, particularly not in light of what's happened thus far. But then, being reasonable doesn't seem to be a political trait that gets selected for these days.

RELATED:

What does "compromise" mean?

Where's the Obama plan (that we leaked)?

Obama throws the GOP a debt-ceiling rope

-- Jon Healey

Photo: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), one of the not-so-happy warriors behind the debt-ceiling deal. Credit: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg

 

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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.



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