As McClatchy and the New York Times among others have documented, senators and representatives in the minority party have often voted against debt ceiling increases. Whether motivated by opposition to larger spending or tax legislation, or as a symbolic vote to embarrass the president and his Congressional majority (as Sens. Obama and Reid did in 2006), the 40 debt ceiling increases since 1980 have rarely been unanimous.
Which is what makes the GOP's hostage-taking so unique. Never before has the threat to block a debt limit increase been coupled with one party's intent and ability to actually do it. (As Reid described his own grandstanding, "The Republicans were in power—there were more of them.") After all, while Republican Speaker John Boehner has the numbers to deny a debt ceiling increase in the House, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can prevent it from even coming to a vote. Of course, when George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office, GOP leaders including Boehner, McConnell, Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and John Cornyn didn't just vote for seven increases in the debt ceiling. In November 2004, they all voted for the very kind of "clean" debt ceiling bill they refuse to offer President Obama now.
After having increases the national debt by 40 percent since his inauguration in January 2001, President George W. Bush in October 2004 called for his fourth hike in the nation's borrowing authority. His Treasury Secretary John Snow warned, "Given current projections, it is imperative that the Congress take action to increase the debt limit by mid-November," adding that his arsenal of fiscal tools, including tapping money intended for the civil service retirement fund, "will be exhausted."
But as the New York Times explained on November 17, 2004, Bush had to wait for his debt ceiling increase for a very simple reason:
Though an increase in the debt ceiling was never in doubt, Republican leaders in both houses of Congress postponed action on it last month, until after the elections, to deprive Democrats of a chance to accuse them of fiscal irresponsibility.
With his reelection safely secured, Republicans delivered Bush's debt ceiling increase in a stand-alone bill, with no conditions, no threats and no poison pills.
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By 52-44 in the Senate and 208-204 in the House, Republicans led Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) boosted the borrowing limit from $7.4 trillion to $8.2 trillion. Over 100 current Republican members of Congress voted "aye." Among them were the today's top two Senate Republicans (Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn) and the entire House leadership team (Boehner, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan).
And just why did President Bush and his allies insist that 11 percent increase was needed?
Administration officials contend that the annual deficits are undesirable but necessary to help stimulate an economic recovery and fight a global war on terrorism.
As Speaker Hastert's spokesman John Feehery put it just before the House vote:
"We have an obligation to keep the government in operation."
Alas, that was then and this is now. Dick Cheney's dictum ("Reagan proved deficits don't matter") is no longer operative with a Democrat in the White House. After the GOP took over the House in the 2010 midterms, Feehery argued in April 2011 that Republicans need "get something substantial in exchange for a vote on the debt ceiling." Determined to prove that "there's no daylight between the tea party and me," new Speaker John Boehner broke with his 2004 vote:
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), fresh off the budget talks, told donors this weekend that if Obama wants an up or down vote on the debt ceiling he's not going to get it.
"The president says I want you to send me a clean bill," Boehner said. "Well guess what, Mr. President, not a chance you're going to get a clean bill."
"There will not be an increase in the debt limit without something really, really big attached to it," he continued in a clip of his remarks at a fundraiser that was played during "Face the Nation."
After the budget deal that ended the summer 2011 debt ceiling debacle, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
declared, "it's a hostage that's worth ransoming." And as he made clear to CNBC's Larry Kudlow, McConnell promised to do it again:
"What we have done, Larry, also is set a new template. In the future, any president, this one or another one, when they request us to raise the debt ceiling, it will not be clean anymore. This is just the first step. This, we anticipate, will take us into 2013. Whoever the new president is, is probably going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again. Then we will go through the process again and see what we can continue to achieve in connection with these debt ceiling requests of presidents to get our financial house in order."
Of course, in their few moments of candor, the GOP's best and brightest agree with President Obama that failing to raise the debt ceiling would be "catastrophic
." While Speaker Boehner said default would trigger "financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham warned of "financial collapse and calamity throughout the world." Or as Paul Ryan acknowledged, "You can't not raise the debt ceiling."
Unless, Republicans now argue, they don't occupy the White House.