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‘Far from ecstatic’: Democrats reluctantly help pass debt limit deal

Representative Katherine Clark, the second-ranking House Democrat, spoke on the debt limit at the Capitol on Wednesday.Kevin Dietsch/Getty

WASHINGTON — Representative Jake Auchincloss has made it clear that while he doesn’t like the debt limit deal forged between President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, that wasn’t going to stop him from voting for it.

No one from either side of the aisle in Congress seems to be all that wild about the debt deal. But for members of Biden’s party in particular, there is a general resentment that Democrats had to get it over the line in the House Wednesday night because Republicans lacked the votes and pushed the country to the edge of an economic disaster over what traditionally has been a routine legislative procedure.


The debt limit bill passed the House by a substantial margin, 314-117, but only because more Democrats supported it than Republicans: 165 to 149, with nearly one-third of the GOP caucus bucking McCarthy on a crucial vote.

“Over and over again, Democrats have to be the grownups in the room. And we’re going to do it again. We’re going to protect the full faith and credit of the United States,” Auchincloss, a Newton Democrat, said Wednesday morning after leaving a meeting with White House officials on the deal. “Governing is about compromise.”

Auchincloss and colleagues in both parties were faced with one of the more stark instances of realpolitik, in which the consequences of inaction — both to the nation’s economy and to their own political parties — far outweighed more ordinary matters of principle.

There was much discontent among House Republicans, with some conservatives vowing to oppose the bill and even suggesting they would try to unseat McCarthy as speaker because they felt he sold them out by not negotiating greater reductions in federal spending.

One of McCarthy’s lead negotiators on the deal, Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, downplayed objections from members of the far right House Freedom Caucus.


“This is a good deal,” McHenry told reporters Wednesday. “But you can never avoid naysayers. . . . What I would say, though, is that House Republicans are in a better situation now, are generically happier now, than in any previous debt ceiling [vote] that I’ve encountered in my 20 years in the House.”

For House Democrats, though, particularly those from deep blue states such as Massachusetts, the deal was a tough one to accept.

The agreement is far less draconian than a debt limit bill that passed the House in April with only Republican support. The version negotiated by Biden and McCarthy would suspend the debt limit until January 2025, in exchange for two years of restrictions on non-defense spending, additional work requirements for some older Americans receiving government food assistance, and giving the go-ahead to a natural gas pipeline in West Virginia.

Democratic leaders charged with selling the deal highlighted a few positives, such as expanding eligibility for food aid to veterans, homeless people, and young adults leaving foster care. And Democrats praised Biden and his team for limiting the damage in the negotiations.

But whatever exasperation some had at the terms of the deal was outweighed by fear of the alternative: what a first-ever government default would do to the economy, and by extension, to Biden’s reelection chances along with their own hopes of retaking the House majority.

“There is no perfect negotiation when you are the victims of extortion,” said Representative Katherine Clark of Revere, the second-ranking House Democrat. “It’s hard to take in because it is so cartoon villain-like. But unlike a cartoon, the American people won’t snap back up when you drop that economic anvil on their head.”


Senate Democrats now face the same dilemma.

“I am leaning against this bill, but my vote will depend in part on whether or not that pushes us over the edge to default,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. “I am very frustrated about where we are right now, but that doesn’t mean I want to make things even worse.”

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said he was “far from ecstatic” about the deal. “But I recognize that compromise requires both sides to be a bit unhappy,” he said.

For some progressives who vowed to vote against the debt limit bill, “unhappy” was an understatement.

“We need to do multiple things at the same time, prevent default and send the message that holding the US economy hostage is not acceptable,” said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat. “I think we can send that message as a party today.”

She was joined Wednesday by several leading progressives in the House, as well as Senators Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, in declaring their opposition to the deal.

Representative Jim McGovern said he was still wrestling with his decision as of Wednesday morning. The Worcester Democrat, who has made fighting hunger the focus of his career, unsuccessfully lobbied to keep the deal from including additional work requirements for federal food assistance programs, a Republican priority.


“Behind all the talking points are real people, and I don’t want to see real people — people that I care about — get screwed,” McGovern said of the bill. “I know where my heart is. I don’t know where my head is.”

McGovern ended up voting against the bill, as did Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Boston Democrat. The other seven House members from Massachusetts supported it.

Recent polls show voters would spread the blame for a default roughly evenly between Biden and congressional Republicans. But that’s a major shift from the 2011 debt limit fight, in which polls showed voters blaming Republicans by significant margins.

The recession that economists have predicted would come with a default would likely hurt Democrats as Biden is the president. And that would make it harder for Democratic lawmakers in competitive districts, such as Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, to win reelection.

Spanberger voted for the deal even though she’s not pleased with it, including the authorization of the natural gas pipeline, which will run through her state. But the damage a default would render to the economy, national security, and her constituents, she said, outweighs any politics.

“I don’t even understand how my colleagues on the other side of the aisle were even willing to play with fire. And this isn’t just fire. This is like napalming the economy,” she said. “I was elected to govern and you don’t always like all aspects of what that means. This isn’t the bill I would have written.”


Auchincloss said Democrats knew there would be a major fight over spending after Republicans took control of the House in January. But a deal should have been sought through the annual budget process, not by tying it to the debt limit, which only authorizes borrowing for spending Congress has already approved, he said.

“We understand that elections have consequences,” he said. “We knew this deal was coming, whether it came as part of the appropriations process in September or came now. The Republicans chose to use the brinkmanship of the US credit” rating.

Democrats said they weren’t willing to take that risk and promised to provide enough votes to pass the bill. But some said it’s not a role they sought out.

Representative Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat, said he voted for the deal because it protects initiatives Democrats have worked hard to enact under Biden. Neal also wasn’t thrilled, but he likened the situation to a line from the Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

“Mick Jagger got it right,” Neal said. “You get what you need.”

Tal Kopan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at Follow him @JimPuzzanghera. Jorja Siemons can be reached at Follow her @JorjaSiemons.