Fact check: Biden says raising debt ceiling is 'usually' bipartisan

Posted October 8, 2021 4:56 p.m. EDT
Updated October 8, 2021 5:03 p.m. EDT

Facing the prospect of the federal government running out of money to pay its bills in weeks, President Joe Biden said Senate Republicans are "reckless" and "hypocritical" by refusing to join Democrats in voting to raise the debt limit.

"Raising the debt limit is usually a bipartisan undertaking, and it should be," Biden said Oct. 4.

Biden pointed the finger at Republicans, saying that they incurred debt during the Trump administration, and the Democrats helped them out at the time.

"Republicans in Congress raised the debt three times when Donald Trump was president and each time with Democrat support, but now they won’t raise it, even though they're responsible for more than $8 trillion in bills incurred in four years under the previous administration," Biden said.

But Democrats haven’t always joined Republicans in voting to increase the debt limit, said Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader.

"In 2003, 2005 and 2006, Mr. President, you joined Senate Democrats in opposing debt limit increases and made Republicans do it ourselves," McConnell wrote in a letter to Biden, referring to when the Republicans controlled the Senate during the George W. Bush administration.

"You explained on the Senate floor that your ‘no’ votes did not mean that you wanted the majority to let the country default; but rather that the President’s party had to take responsibility for an agenda which you opposed. Your view then is our view now."

Both Biden and McConnell are focusing on time periods that match their argument: Democrats did join Republicans in voting to raise the debt ceiling during the Trump administration, and there were times during the George W. Bush administration when Democrats stuck Republicans with that responsibility. What’s different this time is that Republicans are using a different tactic.

While the parties duel over who’s responsible, the clock is ticking. In late September, the House voted to raise the debt ceiling, but Senate Republicans have blocked such attempts. If the debt ceiling isn’t suspended or raised within weeks, the United States won’t be able to cover its bills, which could ripple through the U.S. economy.

Congress has raised or suspended the debt ceiling about 80 times since 1960. For this fact-check, we will largely focus on the more recent time periods cited by Biden and McConnell.

Some past votes were bipartisan

Biden was referring to votes between 2017 and 2019 when lawmakers agreed to raise the debt ceiling. The party split varied for each vote with lawmakers in certain factions of the parties objecting. But it’s fair to call these votes bipartisan, since at least dozens of lawmakers from both parties voted in favor of the legislation.

  • In September 2017, Trump reached a deal with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to extend the debt limit, continue funding the government for three months and approve aid after Hurricane Harvey. In the Senate, 47 Democrats and 33 Republicans voted in favor of the legislation; in the House, 133 Republicans joined all of the Democrats to support the legislation.
  • In February 2018, after a brief federal government shutdown, Trump signed a deal that included additional spending on defense and domestic programs, disaster aid and raised the debt limit. Lawmakers backed the bipartisan budget deal by wide margins.
  • In August 2019, the Democrats controlled the House and the Trump White House negotiated a deal with Pelosi. Lawmakers from both parties helped pass the legislation.

But debt ceiling votes have not always been bipartisan.

Donald Marron, director of economic policy initiatives at the Urban Institute, in 2010 analyzed the previous five votes on raising the debt limit. He found that in 2004 and 2006, when the Republicans held the majority in the Senate, they delivered nearly all the votes to raise the debt ceiling. When the Democrats held the majority in 2009-10, their party delivered nearly all the votes to raise the debt ceiling.

The only exception was 2007 when there was a divided government — a Republican president and a Democratic Senate — and a little more than half of the senators from both parties voted to raise the debt ceiling.

The bottom line is that the Senate holds the responsibility for raising the debt ceiling to avoid economic fallout.

"The Senate has to deliver a debt limit increase," Marron wrote in 2010. "And that means that the Senate majority has to deliver the votes. As a matter of politics, then, debt limit votes are a tax on the majority. The majority has to take the hit for increasing the limit, while the minority gets a free ride."

McConnell pointed to a vote in 2003, when only two Democrats and one independent joined Republicans in voting for raising the debt limit. Biden voted "no" on the vote.

But on the same day, Biden voted for a smaller increase in the debt ceiling.

In 2004, two Democrats joined Republicans in raising the debt limit. Biden missed the 2004 vote but said at the time, "I would have cast a symbolic vote against an extension of the debt limit. Today’s fiscal mess, the transformation of historic surpluses into record deficits, is not an accident. It is the inevitable outcome of policies that consistently ignored evidence and experience."

In 2006, no Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the debt limit increase. Biden explained his no vote this way: "Because this massive accumulation of debt was predicted, because it was foreseeable, because it was unnecessary, because it was the result of willful and reckless disregard for the warnings that were given and for the fundamentals of economic management, I am voting against the debt limit increase."

Why the 2021 debt ceiling duel is different

Partisan posturing between the parties over the debt isn’t unusual. But what is unusual this time is that Republicans are going further than the minority party has in the past by using the filibuster to force the Democrats to increase the debt limit.

Democrats did not filibuster debt limit increases in 2003, 2004 and 2006, allowing Senate Republicans to raise the debt limit with a simple majority, said Andrew Carothers, a research analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

"This time around, Senate Republicans have already filibustered one bill that would have suspended the debt limit, are likely to filibuster another, and have shown no indication that they will allow Democrats to pass stand-alone legislation to raise or suspend the debt limit outside of the reconciliation process," Carothers said.

Over the past decade, every increase in or suspension of the debt limit passed with bipartisan majorities, with the slight caveat that the 2014 debt limit increase passed the House with bipartisan support, but cleared the Senate on a party-line vote, Carothers said.

Marc Goldwein, senior vice president at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, tweeted that while debt limit increases are often partisan, cloture "votes to allow for debt ceiling increases were generally unanimous prior to 2013. In other words, no one used to filibuster a debt limit increase — at least once it was agreed to."

PolitiFact ruling

PolitiFact: Half-true

Biden said, "Raising the debt limit is usually a bipartisan undertaking."

Democrats did help pass bipartisan legislation to raise the debt ceiling three times during the Trump administration.

Biden used the word "usually" here for a good reason. As McConnell noted, there have been times when Democrats largely didn’t join Republicans in raising the debt ceiling. In 2006, Senate Democrats — including Biden — rejected raising the debt ceiling to take a stand on spending. Biden missed a debt ceiling vote in 2004 but said he would have objected to it.

An analysis from the Urban Institute in 2010 of votes in the preceding years showed that, when in the minority, both parties relinquished the task of raising the debt ceiling on the majority party. When there was a divided government in 2007, raising the debt ceiling was a bipartisan deal. What sets 2021 apart is the Republicans’ use of filibuster to force Democrats to increase the debt limit.

We rate this statement Half True.

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