Debt de­bate looked a lot dif­fer­ent to Biden in ’84

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DI­NAN

With time run­ning out on a loom­ing debt cri­sis, the pres­i­dent and his al­lies in the Se­nate are fight­ing to win a raise in the gov­ern­ment’s bor­row­ing limit, only to be stymied by a mi­nor­ity in­sist­ing that a spend­ing freeze be part of the deal.

Sounds like present day, but it was Oc­to­ber 1984, when the par­ti­san roles were re­versed. Repub­li­cans con­trolled the White House and the Se­nate, while Democrats con­trolled the House. Democrats also could sus­tain fil­i­busters in the Se­nate and were balk­ing at rais­ing the debt ceil­ing un­less it was at­tached to big spend­ing cuts

That year, Democrats de­feated a debt-limit in­crease by vot­ing it down in the Se­nate and forc­ing Repub­li­can lead­ers to send Air Force planes, at a cost of more than $4,000 in tax­payer money, to col­lect ab­sent sen­a­tors and rush them back to Wash­ing­ton for a revote that ul­ti­mately passed.

One of the lead­ers of that 1984 Demo­cratic revolt, a man who tried to im­pose a spend­ing freeze and fought for a smaller debt in­crease than Pres­i­dent Rea­gan wanted, was none other than cur­rent Vice Pres­i­dent Joseph R. Biden, then a sen­a­tor from Delaware and now Pres­i­dent Obama’s right-hand man in ne­go­ti­a­tions with Congress.

“I must ex­press my protest against con­tin­u­ally in­creas­ing the debt with­out tak­ing pos­i­tive steps to slow its growth. There­fore, I am vot­ing against any fur­ther in­crease in the na­tional debt,” Mr. Biden said in a floor speech just be­fore help­ing fel­low Democrats de­feat an in­crease of $251 bil­lion on a 46-14 vote.

He wanted a smaller rise in the debt limit of $157 bil­lion and seemed to em­pha­size spend­ing cuts rather than tax in­creases, a dif­fer­ent stance from what he takes as part of the Obama White House.

Mr. Biden’s of­fice de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle.

The role re­ver­sal is par for the course in this de­bate. Back in 1984, it was Mr. Rea­gan, a Repub­li­can, who was ask­ing for the debt in­crease and, like Mr. Obama, it was the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion that was warn­ing that So­cial Se­cu­rity ben­e­fits would be cut within weeks.

“With­out the au­thor­ity to raise new funds from mar­ket bor­row­ing, the Trea­sury is rapidly de­plet­ing its cash bal­ances and will thus be un­able to meet the gov­ern­ment’s obli­ga­tions, in­clud­ing is­su­ing checks to So­cial Se­cu­rity re­cip­i­ents, meet­ing the pay­roll for our men and women in the armed forces, fed­eral re­tire­ment and other pay­ments that are re­quired by law,” Tim Mc­Na­mar, the deputy sec­re­tary, said in a letter to Sen. John W. Warner, Vir­ginia Repub­li­can.

The same Repub­li­can lead­ers who are fight­ing to link spend­ing cuts to a debt-ceil­ing in­crease have voted for “clean” raises in years past.

The Obama White House drove that point home this month. Press sec­re­tary Jay Car­ney used a July 14 brief­ing to read to re­porters the num­ber of times each of the four GOP ne­go­tia­tors had voted to raise the debt limit since 1990: House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, six times; House Ma­jor­ity Leader Eric Can­tor of Vir­ginia, five times; Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell of Ken­tucky, eight times; and Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Whip Jon Kyl of Ari­zona, six times.

Mr. Car­ney also re­peated Mr. Obama’s as­ser­tion that he now sees his 2006 vote against rais­ing the debt ceil­ing as “a mis­take.”

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid, Ne­vada Demo­crat, is plead­ing with sen­a­tors for a deal. In 1984, it was Sen. Howard H. Baker, the leg­endary Repub­li­can leader who was about to re­tire, do­ing the beg­ging.

Ex­pect­ing a for­mal­ity, Mr. Baker called for a voice vote. Democrats de­manded a roll call, and the debt in­crease failed over­whelm­ingly. It was op­posed by nearly ev­ery Demo­crat and a cadre of con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans.

Mr. Baker spent the next hours ca­jol­ing his col­leagues and even dis­patch­ing two Air Force planes on last-minute mis­sions to col­lect ab­sent Repub­li­cans who had re­turned home to cam­paign ahead of an elec­tion within a few weeks.

One of those ab­sent lawmakers was Sen. Thad Cochran, a Mis­sis­sippi Repub­li­can who is now vice chair­man of the Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee. He flew back with Sen. Jeremiah Den­ton of Alabama on a six-pas­sen­ger jet at a cost of $2,300, ac­cord­ing to a New York Times re­port at the time.

A seven-pas­sen­ger jet was dis­patched for Sen. John Tower of Texas, cost­ing an ad­di­tional $1,800.

All three voted yes and, com­bined with some vote switch­ers and oth­ers who had voted against the first in­crease but sat out the sec­ond vote, Mr. Baker won his do-over by a vote of 37-30.

Asked two weeks ago, Mr. Cochran said he didn’t re­mem­ber be­ing hus­tled back to Wash­ing­ton and said he has been fo- cused on the spend­ing bill this year, not on the debt-ceil­ing de­bate rag­ing around him.

“I’ve just been think­ing about this bill, not the debt limit,” Mr. Cochran said in a brief in­ter­view off the Se­nate floor when asked what his stance would be this time.

The 1984 debt vote was the last one over­seen by Mr. Baker. In an opin­ion col­umn in The Wash­ing­ton Post on July 18, Mr. Baker urged both sides to find a way to avoid de­fault.

Iron­i­cally, Mr. Baker cowrote the piece with his wife, Nancy Kasse­baum Baker, who in 1984 was Sen. Kasse­baum, Kansas Repub­li­can and one of the chief spon­sors of the spend­ing-freeze pro­posal Mr. Biden was sup­port­ing. Sen. Kasse­baum voted with Mr. Biden and against Mr. Baker on both debt votes that Oc­to­ber.

Sen. Richard G. Lu­gar, an In­di­ana Repub­li­can who also is still in the cham­ber, voted for the debt-limit in­crease both times in 1984. Two other Repub­li­cans who are still in the Se­nate, Chuck E. Grass­ley of Iowa and Or­rin G. Hatch of Utah, op­posed the debt in­crease on the first go-round.

Mr. Grass­ley missed the sec­ond vote, and Mr. Hatch switched and sup­ported the rise.

Cur­rent Se­nate Democrats vot­ing against the debt in­crease on the first and sec­ond votes in 1984 are Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Max Bau­cus of Mon­tana, Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii and Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Pa­trick J. Leahy of Ver­mont.

Three other re­main­ing Se­nate Democrats, Sens. Jeff Binga­man of New Mex­ico, Frank R. Laut­en­berg of New Jer­sey and Carl Levin of Michi­gan, missed the votes.

Things sure were dif­fer­ent back then: Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden

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