Here’s Why Principled Progressives Opposed a Cruel and Destructive Debt Ceiling Deal

Here’s Why Principled Progressives Opposed a Cruel and Destructive Debt Ceiling Deal

Here’s Why Principled Progressives Opposed a Cruel and Destructive Debt Ceiling Deal

These Democrats defied their president and their party leaders to vote against a deal that harms families, the poor, and the environment.


The punishing debt ceiling agreement that was hashed out by President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) gained House approval on Wednesday and was passed by the Senate on Thursday night. There was predictable opposition in both chambers from right-wing Republicans who complained that its cruel cuts to domestic programs did not go far enough. But the more meaningful, and moral, opposition came from progressive Democrats—along with Vermont independent Bernie Sanders—who broke with their own party’s president and rejected an arrangement that hikes Pentagon spending and maintains tax breaks for billionaires while literally denying food to hungry Americans and derailing environmental initiatives.

“This is not a deal that upholds progressive values. It increases spending for defense and limits the pot of money for everything else,” declared California Representative Ro Khanna, one of 46 House Democrats who voted against the agreement to temporarily suspend the federal government’s borrowing limit in order to avoid the economic chaos that could extend from a default on payments. (Five progressive senators voted against the deal.) While these legislators decried Republicans for manufacturing a crisis, they also criticized Biden for negotiating a “bad deal” that warps budget priorities to favor the military-industrial complex and corporate elites while doing harm to the poor and the planet.

The House vote ended with a win for Biden and McCarthy. It was approved with relative ease on a 314-117 vote that saw 165 Democrats and 149 Republicans vote “yes.” An anticipated rebellion by hard-line Republicans, many of them associated with the so-called “Freedom Caucus,” fell short as just 71 of them voted “no.” The Republican “no” votes were in many instances accompanied by rancorous statements from conservatives like Texan Chip Roy, who expressed frustration with McCarthy for accepting “a two-year spending freeze that’s full of loopholes and gimmicks.”

It was similar in the Senate, where the vote for the deal was 63-36. Thirty-one Republicans voted “no.” The four Democratic “no” votes came from John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Jeff Merkley of Oregon. They were joined by Sanders, who said:

Deficit reduction cannot just be about cutting programs that working families, the children, the sick, the elderly, and the poor depend upon. It must be about demanding that the billionaire class and profitable corporations pay their fair share of taxes, reining in out-of-control military spending, reducing the price of prescription drugs, and ending billions of dollars in corporate welfare that goes to the fossil fuel industry and other corporate interests.

The House and Senate Democrats who voted “no” on what Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) described as a Republican “extortion scheme,” tended to be easier on Biden. Many, such as New York Representative Jerry Nadler, said they respected that the president was in a tough spot. But they could not support a deal that restricts access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and shreds environmental protections.

A particular bone of contention for progressives on both sides of Capitol Hill was the green-lighting of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a West Virginia project favored by fossil fuel companies and Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), that has been broadly opposed by environmental groups. Removing regulatory and legal barriers to the project represents “a surrender to Big Oil,” argued Friends of the Earth, while Sierra Club executive director Ben Jealous complained that “allowing this deal to advance sets a dangerous precedent. We can pay America’s bills without undermining bedrock environmental protections or fast-tracking the fracked gas Mountain Valley Pipeline.”

Immediate and long-term environmental consequences weighed heavily on the minds of Democrats who voted “no.”

“[With] the abominable approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, this deal is a major step backward from the climate and environmental justice wins we delivered in the last Congress,” argued California Representative Jared Huffman. “And since Democrats got nothing on the permitting reform item we actually need (electrical transmission), Republicans will use that as leverage to demand even more environmental rollbacks in the months ahead.”

Cuts to safety-net programs drew both practical and moral objections. Warning about the “impact this will have in concrete, practical terms,” Khanna said the agreement “will force real dollar cuts that push parents relying on government childcare financial assistance out of the workforce. It will mean cuts to housing vouchers that leave families unable to put a roof over their heads. Programs that help low-income Americans with their energy bills will have to turn people away in the winter.”

Representative Delia Ramirez, an Illinois Democrat who represents economically hard-hit neighborhoods in Chicago, complained:

“Adding more work requirements to SNAP is cruel. Adding more obstacles to TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) is cruel. Forcing student loan repayments to resume is cruel. I am clear on who I am here for. I am here for the 1.3 million student loan borrowers in Illinois who are being forced to resume payments, even when they are struggling to keep up with the bills; the 76,836 people across Illinois counting on TANF cash assistance to keep their families afloat; and the 1,981,700 residents of Illinois counting on SNAP to put food on the table. The hostage situation Republicans forced onto the American people has led to a deal I cannot, in good conscience, support.”

One of the most consistent objections from Democrats who voted “no” had to do with the fact that, while spending on domestic programs will be capped, military spending will skyrocket by tens of billions of dollars over the next two years. “Severely restraining domestic spending while continuing to inflate unchecked defense spending for the Pentagon shows Republicans are not actually serious about addressing the deficit,” said Wisconsin Democrat Mark Pocan.

“In good faith, I could not vote for a bill that hurts our most vulnerable by ripping away critical benefits & fueling the climate crisis—all while protecting the wealthy from paying their fair share and increasing defense spending,” added Representative Barbara Lee, the California Democrat who, with Pocan, cochairs the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus.

Lee is a candidate in California’s 2024 Democratic US Senate primary. While she and another candidate, Katie Porter, voted “no,” the third major contender, Representative Adam Schiff, backed the deal.

Schiff and other Democrats who voted “yes” won praise from party leaders for acting as the “adults in the room.” But Khanna, a Lee backer in the Senate race, took exception to such characterizations. “The Beltway tactic of describing those who are for higher defense spending and cuts to students, the poor, and vulnerable women as the ‘grown-ups,’ as ‘serious,’ delegitimizes voices seeking to change the status quo,” said Khanna. “Argue on the merits. Don’t misuse language to silence dissent.”

Here’s a full list of the House Democrats who voted “no”:

Nanette Díaz Barragán (California)

Suzanne Bonamici (Oregon)

Jamaal Bowman (New York)

Cori Bush (Missouri)

Greg Casar (Texas)

Joaquin Castro (Texas)

Judy Chu (California)

Yvette Clarke (New York)

Gerry Connolly (Virginia)

Jasmine Crockett (Texas)

Rosa DeLauro (Connecticut)

Mark DeSaulnier (California)

Adriano Espaillat (New York)

Jesus Garcia (Illinois)

Sylvia Garcia (Texas)

Daniel Goldman (New York)

Jimmy Gomez (California)

Raúl Grijalva (Arizona)

Jahana Hayes (Connecticut)

Val Hoyle (Oregon)

Jared Huffman (California)

Pramila Jayapal (Washington)

Sydney Kamlager-Dove (California)

Ro Khanna (California)

John Larson (Connecticut)

Barbara Lee (California)

Summer Lee (Pennsylvania)

Jim McGovern (Massachusetts)

Grace Meng (New York)

Gwen Moore (Wisconsin)

Jerry Nadler (New York)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York)

Mark Pocan (Wisconsin)

Katie Porter (California)

Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts)

Delia Ramirez (Illinois)

Jan Schakowsky (Illinois)

Robert Scott (Virginia)

Melanie Stansbury (New Mexico)

Rashida Tlaib (Michigan)

Norma Torres (California)

Ritchie Torres (New York)

Juan Vargas (California)

Nydia Velázquez (New York)

Nikema Williams (Georgia)

Frederica Wilson (Florida)

Juan Vargas (California)

Nydia Velázquez (New York)

Nikema Williams (Georgia)

Frederica Wilson (Florida)

Note: This piece has been updated throughout to reflect the Senate’s passage of the debt ceiling bill.

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