PROVIDENCE — None of the members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, all Demo-crats, liked the agreement to raise the nation’s debt limit very much, but all four of them voted for it, saying its passage was necessary to prevent a potentially catastrophic default.
The deal to hike the nation’s borrowing limit by $2.4 trillion in exchange for an equal amount of spending cuts, worked out by congressional leaders and President Barack Obama after weeks of political arm-wrestling with each other as well as members of their own parties, passed the Senate on a 74-26 vote Tuesday afternoon after being approved in the House of Representatives Monday, 269-161.
For Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, it was a good news/bad news situation.
“The good news is that we avoided the default of the government of the United States that the House Republicans had threatened and, after a lot of fighting, Medicare and Social Security benefits were both protected,” Whitehouse told The Times in an interview after the vote. “The bad news is that the tax gimmicks and loopholes that disproportionately benefit the wealthy and the well-connected” were not touched in the bipartisan deal.
“The other piece of bad news is that this was a completely unnecessary crisis that I think has done long term damage to the fiscal standing and political credibility of the United States,” the senator said. “That makes it kind of a shame. But at least we came out of it with Medicare and Social Security unscathed and no default.”
Whitehouse sees danger in the strategy used by GOP lawmakers to fashion the bill to their liking and fears that could become a precedent for future key votes he worries that Republicans will leverage to get further spending cuts.
“The House Republican extremists see this as learned behavior and every time they get a chance, they will use this tactic,” he said. “The strategy is going to continue, I think, for a while until the president stands up to it more effectively or Americans get sick of it.”
Asked if the criticism that President Obama caved into the Republican and Tea Party demands too easily is accurate, Whitehouse said that in his opinion it is.
Sen. Jack Reed called it “a very difficult vote.”
What prompted him to support it, Reed said, was “we have to signal that we will not allow the United States to default because the consequences would be catastrophic, particularly to middle Americans – delayed Social Security payments, questions about the solvency of every major program.
“Given an environment when Republicans, particularly, are literally talking about ‘we’ll let the country default,’ or “it’s no big deal,’ in that context you had to stand up and signal that you’re not going to let the country default,” Reed said Tuesday.
Asked if it is a bad precedent to set to allow such brinkmanship to succeed, Reed said, “By the time the vote reached us, the brinkmanship precedent had been firmly established. “I can recall seven times under President (George W.) Bush that he had to ask for an increase in the debt ceiling,” Reed said, citing even more instances during the administrations of presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, “this was never treated as a point of leverage to extract ideological benefits. It was always seen as the responsibility of the country to pay the debts we’ve incurred.”
The law, which was signed by Obama shortly after the Senate gave its approval, calls for a second round of deficit reduction later this year by a select committee of Republicans and Democrats. If the committee can not come to an agreement on how to achieve such deficit reduction, or its work is not approved by Congress, it would trigger automatic cuts, half of which would come from defense and national security budgets. Rhode Island’s economy is heavily dependent on defense industry jobs and military contracts.
Reed called that “a very problematic provision. That was probably the provision that was strongly being weighed by me to vote against the bill. The mechanics are such that those sequestrations (automatic cuts) don’t go into effect until 2013, so you have a year to work yourself out of the problem. On the other hand, you have a year of uncertainty that might cause some paralysis in the economy. People might say, if I don’t know what they are going to do, how can I make sophisticated investment judgments, etc.”
In a written statement, 1st District Rep. David Cicilline said, “"In order to prevent a first ever default on our nation's obligations, and to avoid the very real potential of an economic catastrophe, I voted in favor of the compromise legislation that was passed today in the U.S. House of Representatives.
To be clear, there's a lot about this bill I don't like, but my prerequisite for voting in favor of this bill was that we avoid a default and we protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid beneficiaries, which this bill does.
"There's no question that the single biggest job killer for our country would have been a default.”
"This is not the debt reduction bill that I wanted to vote for,” 2nd District Rep. Jim Langevin said. “It does not ask those who have benefited the most from the economic policies of the past decade to pay their fair share. “Unfortunately,” he added, “the consequences of failing to pass it, and not
allowing the Treasury to pay all of our bills, would do even more harm to the middle class, our seniors and our most vulnerable citizens through higher interest rates and an even further damaged economy. There is an intractable group of members on the other side of the aisle that is willing to let that happen. That is unacceptable.
“As we move forward to the next stage of the deficit reduction plan passed today,” Langevin said, “we must have the courage to take a balanced approach that asks for shared sacrifice by those who can afford it, particularly from large corporations and the wealthiest few who are paying historically low taxes. That way we can return to a strong and prosperous economy and put our citizens back to work."