Senate Republicans express valid concerns over debt limit deal

Photo Credit: Jacquelyn Martin-Pool/Getty Images

By Ethan Oppenheim

President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy recently reached a deal to suspend the debt limit in exchange for various spending cuts. On May 31, the House of Representatives, in a bipartisan manner, voted 314-117 to pass the “Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023,” a bill containing key provisions of the agreement. The Senate passed the bill only a day later by a vote of 63-36. Mr. Biden signed the bill into law on Saturday, June 3, only two days before the deadline on which Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen predicted the U.S. would reach the debt ceiling.

Perhaps more surprising than this rare show of bipartisan lawmaking was the difference in voting between the House and Senate. For instance, while more House Democrats voted for the bill than Republicans, it was not by a large margin, and a majority of both parties signaled approval for it. However, in the Senate, Democrats overwhelmingly supported it over their Republican colleagues, with Democrats voting in favor of the bill by a vote of 46-5 and Republicans rejecting it by a vote of 17-31.

How can an agreement, which received praise from both Mr. Biden and Mr. McCarthy and that garnered relatively equal support from both parties in the House, be favored overwhelmingly by one party in the Senate? In other words, why did Senate Republicans vehemently reject an agreement that House Republicans and Democrats equally supported? The answer likely lies in the cap on defense spending and the lack of cuts for Social Security and Medicare, both of which are legitimate concerns.

Defense hawks, which comprise a fair amount of Senate Republicans, have expressed concern over the caps on defense spending, and rightly so. The agreement caps 2024 fiscal spending for defense at only 3% higher than that of 2023, and only 1% higher the following year. Given current inflation rates, this ultimately amounts to a cut in defense spending, as Florida Rep. Michael Waltz correctly points out. Many Senate Republicans, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, also share Mr. Waltz’s concern.

“We are playing with the men and women’s lives in the military, their ability to defend themselves, as some chess game in Washington,” said Mr. Graham. “The fact that you would punish the military because we can’t do our jobs as politicians is a pretty sad moment for me.” The spending cuts included in the bill risk $16 billion worth of defense projects and call into question Congress’s ability to supplement aid to Ukraine. Given Russia’s current imperialist conquest and territorial onslaught in Ukraine, these roadblocks are problematic, and assurance that additional funding would be available if necessary should have been explicitly included.

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton issued similar sentiments, claiming that the bill “poses a mortal risk to our national security.” Similarly, Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker cites the need to prioritize national defense as China’s military buildup and territorial ambitions threaten Taiwan and American national security. Despite defense spending comprising only 13% of the nation’s annual budget and our adversaries taking every initiative to expand their power at the expense of their neighbors, as well as civilians’ lives, Washington prioritized capping defense spending while leaving welfare spending, which comprises 64% of our budget, largely unchecked. Clearly, Washington ought to reassess its priorities.

Additionally, the debt limit agreement does not include cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Pursuing budget cuts in these entitlement areas was, reasonably so, one of the primary goals for conservatives who hoped to reform these programs, which consume nearly half of the nation’s annual budget and are approaching insolvency

Republican negotiators undoubtedly made this concession to appease Democrats, more of whom likely would have opposed the bill, had it made significant cuts to Social Security and Medicare. However, it is reasonable to express concern over a lack of attention toward these programs, which consume a significant portion of the federal budget (over triple that of defense spending) and are on track to going bankrupt in the near future.

Given the difference in priorities between congressional leaders on both sides, Mr. McCarthy should be commended for his bipartisan efforts to avoid defaulting on our debt, as should Mr. Biden. However, with a Republican majority in the House and an almost evenly split Senate, Mr. McCarthy had a considerable advantage that he could have brought to the negotiating table, one which he could have used to protect resources for our armed servicemen, as well as reel in even a slim percentage of the immense funding going toward our most expensive programs to date. Unfortunately, he failed to do so, and Senate Republicans have a point in calling him out on it.

Mr. Oppenheim is a junior at Chapman University. He is majoring in political science and philosophy and minoring in film music and history.

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