Debt debate looked a lot different to Biden in ’84
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