Red-State Democrats’ Long Paper Trail on Debt

by Jonathan Strong

As Andrew notes, voting to pass a clean debt-ceiling increase will put a number of Senate Democrats at odds with their past position on the issue. Voting to raise the debt ceiling without any accompanying reforms to reduce the deficit is likely to be a politically toxic vote for vulnerable red-state Democratic senators, and the paper trail on their past promises to reduce the debt is long.

For example, the first time President Obama entered a negotiation related to the debt ceiling was not at the behest of the GOP. In 2010, Blue Dog Democrats in the House forced him to include a statutory “PAYGO” provision in the debt-ceiling increase passed that year. 

In 2011, Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas told Democratic leadership he would not vote for a clean debt-ceiling increase. “What I’ve told anyone who will listen to me in Washington, including my leadership, is that I’m not going to vote for that unless there is a real and meaningful commitment to debt reduction,” Pryor said then.

Pryor also voted against raising the debt ceiling four times during the George W. Bush administration.

Senator Mary Landrieu of Lousiana voted three times against raising the debt ceiling in the Bush administration and has sternly warned of the dire threat of large government deficits.

“He’s run up one of the largest debts in history, one of the largest deficits in history. That is bad for business, and it’s unsettling to Americans who like to see our government run in a very conservative, financially conservative manner, and I think they believe, Judy, they deserve that,” Landrieu said on CNN in 2004. 

In 2011, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado warned that credit agencies would not be satisfied simply with raising the debt ceiling — it was also important to “take care of the long-term fiscal scenario.”

The debt-ceiling increase “must be coupled with long-term deficit reduction,” Udall wrote in an op-ed with Republican senator Mark Kirk.

Democratic congressman Bruce Braley, who is running for Senate in Iowa, has been particularly emphatic about the need for a plan to reduce the debt. He has called on leaders from both parties to come to the table to negotiate a plan and called the national debt (which, in 2011, was $14 trillion — it’s now over $16 trillion) “unacceptable.”

Braley said in 2011 he was “reluctant” to raise the debt ceiling without a path forward for debt reduction.

In 2010, Alaska senator Mark Begich said the failure to control the debt “endangers the nation’s economic recovery and the family budgets of average Americans.”

Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina says on her website that the country’s rising debt is “unsustainable and threatens America’s ability to pursue our priorities and respond to Congress.”

Like guns, deficits are an issue that Democrats in marginal districts and states use to differentiate themselves from the national Democratic party in the eyes of voters. That’s why voting for a clean debt-ceiling bill is likely to bring them a lot of heat back home.