Many Democratic lawmakers, from President Obama on down, have been on the defensive in the debt ceiling fight because in 2006 they themselves voted against raising the debt limit. Obama, Vice President Biden, Democratic Senate leadership Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, Charles Schumer, and Patty Murray — they all voted against it.
Today, Democrats and their partisans in the press argue that while those votes were political posturing, they weren’t really serious because Democrats were the minority party in the Senate in 2006 and could not have blocked a debt ceiling increase, leading to serious financial consequences for the country.
The problem with that argument is that Democrats have indeed, in recent memory, while in the majority, threatened to stop a debt limit increase. It happened in 2009, when Democrats controlled the Senate and a group of influential lawmakers, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, were deeply concerned about big increases in entitlement spending. Feinstein and others wanted to see the creation of an independent entitlement commission, roughly based on the earlier military base closing commission, to enact cuts in entitlement spending.
But the lawmakers worried that Congress, especially then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the House, would not go along with their plan. So in November 2009, with the country near the debt limit and a move underway to raise the ceiling, the Democrats threatened not to go along unless their commission plan was enacted.
“I will not vote for raising the debt limit without a vehicle to handle this,” Feinstein said at a November 2009 Senate Budget Committee hearing. “This is our moment.”
Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh agreed. “There are rare moments of leverage in this institution where you can implement fundamental change,” he said. “This is one of those moments, we must seize it.” Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad also agreed. “You rarely do have the leverage to make a fundamental change — a fundamental break from the current trend,” he said. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner also favored the plan, as did Independent-Democrat Joseph Lieberman.
A few left-wing bloggers were incensed over the whole episode and criticized the Democrats in ways similar to the ways they are criticizing Republicans today — see here and here. In the end, the commission didn’t happen, Congress voted to raise the debt ceiling, and all the Democratic senators except Bayh went along. But the bottom line is, it is simply not a new thing for members of Congress to attempt to attach policy proposals to debt ceiling legislation — and even for members of the majority party to threaten to vote against it if they don’t get what they want.