On Friday the Democratic leadership of the Senate — Majority Leader Harry Reid, Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin, Conference Chair Charles Schumer, and Conference Secretary Patty Murray — wrote to President Obama urging him to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling in the event that Republicans either block such an increase or attempt to pass one “as part of unbalanced or unreasonable legislation.”
“We believe that you must make clear that you will never allow our nation’s economy and reputation to be held hostage,” the Democrats wrote. “We believe you must be willing to take any lawful steps to ensure that America does not break its promises and trigger a global economic crisis — without congressional approval, if necessary.”
Put aside the picture of leading lawmakers, usually so jealous of their constitutional prerogatives, asking the president to ignore Congress. What is striking about the letter is that every one of its signers — Reid, Durbin, Schumer, and Murray — voted against raising the nation’s debt ceiling just seven years ago.
On March 16, 2006, the Senate held a vote on a measure to raise the debt ceiling by $781 billion — the fourth such vote of George W. Bush’s presidency. Republicans controlled the Senate, and Democrats spent much of the debate railing against Bush’s spending. “When it comes to deficits, this president owns all the records,” said Reid. “The three largest deficits in our nation’s history have all occurred under this administration’s watch.”
Declaring themselves outraged by such spending, Reid, Durbin, Schumer, and Murray all voted against raising the debt limit. So did every other Democrat — including Sen. Barack Obama. But on Friday, the four lawmakers urged now-President Obama not only to raise the ceiling but to do it in a constitutionally risky fashion by going over the head of Congress.
In the summer of 2011, during the last debt ceiling fight, Reid conceded his ’06 vote was all about politics. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he told ABC’s Jonathan Karl. “I’m kind of embarrassed I did. It was a political maneuver by we Democrats.” But now, Reid and his colleagues have come up with yet another political maneuver — a possibly unconstitutional one — in urging the president to ignore Congress in a matter in which Congress has a critical role to play.