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Essential Politics: House Republicans plan a debt ceiling showdown

Rep. Mike Garcia nominates Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy  for House Speaker
Rep. Mike Garcia nominates Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy for House Speaker on Jan. 6.
(Tom Williams/Associated Press)
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Last Friday, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen sent Congress an urgent request: Increase the debt ceiling so the federal government can pay its bills.

The request is not uncommon — federal law sets limits on how much the government can borrow. But Washington lawmakers have in recent years turned this once-routine act into an opportunity for high-stakes political brinksmanship. The GOP plans to use its new majority in the U.S. House of Representatives to do it again.

Will Democratic and Republican lawmakers work together to let the government pay its bills? What happens if the government defaults on its debts?

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Hello friends, I’m Erin B. Logan. I cover the White House and national politics for the L.A. Times. Today, we are going to discuss partisan squabbling and the nation’s credit.

What is the debt limit and why does it matter?

Like the rest of us, the federal government has to pay its bills.

When cash dries up, lawmakers must increase the nation’s credit limit so the federal government can make its legal obligations, including military salaries, Social Security benefits, tax refunds and interest payments on America’s debt, Yellen wrote in a Jan. 13 letter to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and other Congressional leaders.

The nation is projected to reach its debt limit— $31.4 trillion—on Thursday, after which the Treasury Department must use “extraordinary measures” to avoid defaulting, she wrote. Those measures should last until about early June. Once they’re exhausted, the nation will need to borrow more money or stiff its lenders — and risk having its credit downgraded.

Defaulting could plunge the nation into a recession at a time when Americans are already battling inflation.

“Failure to meet the government’s obligations would cause irreparable harm to the U.S. economy, the livelihoods of all Americans and global financial stability,” Yellen wrote. It is “critical that Congress act in a timely manner,” she added.

Democratic leaders echoed Yellen’s plea and implored the GOP to not make a mess of a once-routine budgeting process.

“A default forced by extreme MAGA Republicans could plunge the country into a deep recession and lead to even higher costs for America’s working families on everything from mortgages and car loans to credit card interest rates,” new House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said in a joint statement. The Democratic leaders noted that their party thrice voted to raise the debt ceiling under then-President Trump.

“This time should be no different,” the New Yorkers added.

But House Republicans have said they want Democrats to make changes to spending before they agree to send a debt-ceiling hike to the upper chamber.

What will the GOP do?

Republicans have made clear that they want to negotiate with the Biden administration over any suspension of or increase to the debt ceiling.

In a news conference, McCarthy said that he and the president had a “very good conversation” but added that his party doesn’t “want to put any fiscal problems to our economy and we won’t, but fiscal problems would be continuing to do business as usual.” He said he did not want to wait until the last minute to come to an agreement but said that the government must adjust its spending.

In order to secure the votes he needed to become speaker, McCarthy reportedly agreed to propose tying spending cuts to raising the debt ceiling. But any deal would require the assent of the White House and the Democratic-controlled Senate. A compromise could force Biden to say goodbye to his priorities, including new money to help the Internal Revenue Service to collect taxes on the rich and funding for safety net programs, the Associated Press reported.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration would not negotiate over the debt limit. “We are not going to be negotiating over the debt ceiling,” she said. “It should not be a political football.”

Republicans have balked at this. “I don’t know why President Biden says he’s not going to negotiate,” Rep. Scott Perry, chairman of the far-right Freedom Caucus said this month on ABCNews.

“If we’re going to pass a debt limit increase that actually does something to drive the trajectory of the ever-increasing debt down,” the Pennsylvanian added, “we can’t just keep doing the same thing under the same conditions with the same management and expect different outcomes.”

Brian Deese, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, said the government must not default on its debt.

“It’s a sacred obligation, the full faith and credit of the United States, and Congress is going to have to deal with the debt limit, and do so without conditions, without games and without putting our economy at risk,” he said.

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The latest from the campaign trail

—Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, a seasoned progressive with more than three decades immersed in California politics, told congressional colleagues last week that she plans to run for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat in 2024, Times writers Nolan D. McCaskill and Seema Mehta reported. Lee announced her intentions during a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus, receiving a standing ovation, but has not officially confirmed she is running or formed an official Senate committee to start raising money.

—In one of his first acts as Nebraska’s governor, Republican Jim Pillen named the previous governor on Thursday to fill the state’s vacant U.S. Senate seat, the Associated Press reported. Pillen surprised no one in naming fellow Republican Pete Ricketts to the seat vacated Sunday by Ben Sasse, also a Republican, after Ricketts helped Pillen get elected in November.

—A failed Republican candidate who authorities said was angry over his defeat and made baseless claims that the November election was rigged against him was arrested Monday in connection with a series of drive-by shootings targeting the homes of Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico’s largest city, the Associated Press reported. Solomon Pena, 39, was arrested Monday evening, just hours after SWAT officers took him into custody and served search warrants at his home, police said.

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The view from Washington

—The Supreme Court agreed Friday to rule on extending federal civil rights law to protect workers who seek to take time off for religious observances, Times writer David G. Savage reported.

—Lawyers for Biden have found still more classified documents at his home in Wilmington, Del., the White House acknowledged Saturday, the Associated Press reported. The latest disclosure is in addition to the discovery of documents from his time as vice president that were found in December in Biden’s garage and in November at his former offices at the Penn Biden Center in Washington.

—Newly empowered House Republicans on Sunday demanded the White House turn over all information related to its searches that have uncovered classified documents at President Biden’s home and former office in the wake of more records being found at his Delaware residence, the Associated Press reported. Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, said he wants to see all documents and communications related to the searches by the Biden team, as well as visitor logs of the president’s home in Wilmington, Del., from Jan. 20, 2021, to present.

The view from California

—Florida and California are becoming two of the nation’s biggest ideological rivals and their differences reflect widening national schisms over culture, lifestyle and the definition of freedom. Advisors to Gov. Gavin Newsom and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who are coming off landslide reelection victories, expect competition to escalate between the two governors, who could at some point run for president, writes Noah Bierman.

—Information obtained by Los Angeles police from search warrants served on Twitter and Reddit has led detectives to additional investigative avenues as they work to uncover who recorded a meeting between three L.A. City Council members and a labor leader that was filled with racist comments, Times writers Richard Winton and Matt Hamilton reported.

—A 13-story hotel that has served as a cornerstone of Los Angeles’ fight against homelessness, a facility that had been set to cease operations in less than three weeks, will be kept open for an additional year, city officials said Friday, Times writer David Zahniser reported.

—Los Angeles County is on track to join the first wave of counties this year launching a sweeping plan backed by Newsom to address severe mental illness by compelling treatment for people who are in serious crisis, Times writers Hannah Wiley and Thomas Curwen reported. The governor’s office announced Friday that Los Angeles County would kick-start the new program known as CARE Court Dec. 1, a year earlier than expected. However, a key question remained unanswered Friday afternoon: whether the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors needs to vote on the plan for the county to join.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and send pictures of your adorable furbabies to me at erin.logan@latimes.com. The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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