Opinion: Washington gets ready for Legislative Chicken on debt limit

Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC

Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC

With the national debt now at its legal limit of $31.4 trillion, everyone in Washington, D.C. knows Democrats and Republicans must strike a deal soon on the federal budget.

But at the White House and in the halls of Congress this week, there was just a lot of talk from both parties — the opening salvos in what may be a bitter political spat.

Democrats want the debt limit increased without strings attached. Republicans say they’ll only agree to add more debt if there’s a deal to rein in the budget.

“Both parties need to have a real conversation and realistic plan to reduce spending instead of pointing fingers and kicking the can down the road,” said U.S. Rep. Rich McCormick, R-Suwanee.

“I am not going to raise the debt ceiling just because and with no plan,” added U.S. Rep. Mike Collins, R-Jackson.

But what is the Republican plan? Other than calls for spending cuts, the GOP details remain nebulous, and Democrats have quickly used that uncertainty to make a familiar charge.

“Now they’re gearing up to slash Medicare and Social Security benefits for millions of Americans,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta.

While Democrats issue those kinds of warnings, they have no plans of their own to hold back on spending or balance the budget.

“I think what we have to do is realize that we have a problem,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., one of the few Democrats calling for fiscal restraint.

In the halls of Congress, there are absolutely no expectations of a quick deal. Both sides are circling each other right now, knowing they have several months before the debt limit truly becomes a financial and political crisis.

Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem. We saw a similar game of Legislative Chicken back in 2011 on the debt limit – almost resulting in a government default.

In the end, that debate produced a budget deal that held down spending for the short term but didn’t really solve America’s overall fiscal troubles.

“We should sit down and get this done and stop playing politics,” said Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who will take the lead for the GOP.

“I think Speaker McCarthy is going to win,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said this week, as he urged Republicans to stick with their calls for budget cuts.

Gingrich knows about budget showdowns from his time as Speaker. And it looks like Congress is on the verge of another extended battle.

Buckle up, America. It probably won’t be pretty.

Jamie Dupree has covered national politics and Congress from Washington, D.C. since the Reagan administration. His column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For more, check out his Capitol Hill newsletter at http://jamiedupree.substack.com