Democrats are now agitating for a plan first offered by Republicans that would shift the balance of power to the White House in debt limit debates.
WASHINGTON — In the wake of the latest confrontation that pushed the nation to the brink of financial default, lawmakers are posing a management question: Can we continue to trust Congress with raising the nation's debt ceiling?
Sen. Barbara Boxer is among a growing group of lawmakers and outside budget experts that say no. "Paying your bills shouldn't be tied to anything else," Boxer said Tuesday.
The United States is the only country in the world that requires a separate vote to raise the debt ceiling to borrow money to pay for spending it has already approved. Denmark has a somewhat similar process, but it is not similarly political.
The California Democrat is advocating legislation to rework the budget process to give the president more authority to raise the debt limit, making it harder for Congress to threaten default. The bill would require veto-proof margins in both chambers to block a president from raising the nation's borrowing limit.
"These are essential functions of government; they should never be used as weapons of mass destruction," said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who introduced the bill with Boxer and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Under current law, raising the debt ceiling requires an affirmative vote of approval by Congress. The debt ceiling vote has become increasingly politicized since 2010, when Republicans swept control of the House, and the GOP has made a priority of reining in the debt.
Outside experts such as Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi have long advocated for eliminating the debt ceiling vote entirely. Zandi said it is an "anachronistic" law that "creates a great deal of uncertainty and angst" in financial markets as it is used increasingly for political leverage to extract policy concessions in a divided Washington.
Boxer's bill would make permanent a temporary mechanism devised in 2011 by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., during a previous debt ceiling confrontation. It would require votes in both chambers for resolutions of disapproval for an increase after the president has requested it.
If the disapproval resolution is approved, it would be sent to the president who would presumably veto it, putting the burden on Congress to find veto-proof majorities to override it — a near-impossible outcome because any president is likely to have enough congressional allies to block such a maneuver.
"I like the McConnell solution," said Republican Doug Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, in an e-mail exchange during the recent 16-day government shutdown that also threatened an unprecedented default.
Holtz-Eakin said that the debt ceiling was initially created to give the president flexibility to conduct World War I, but that today the process has become "too inflexible."
"Since Congress can control debt issuance indirectly by tax and spending choices, we don't need the limit," Holtz-Eakin said.
The McConnell rule was used in 2011 and will be used again this week to approve the latest suspension in the nation's $16.7 trillion debt ceiling until February. The Senate on Tuesday rejected a disapproval resolution on a 45-54 vote. The House is scheduled to take it up on Wednesday and could pass it, but it could have no impact.
McConnell distanced himself from the disapproval resolution system Tuesday, warning Democrats that they are "not going to find any dance partners on this side of the aisle" to make it permanent.
Raising the debt ceiling has been a prior vehicle for spending and budget reforms and parties in the minority — in this case Senate Republicans — will not support permanently relinquishing their role to the executive branch to raise the debt ceiling.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, also opposes it, but Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, support it.
"Republicans seem to be walking away from their ideas," Boxer said Tuesday, adding that "talks are ongoing" with GOP lawmakers, but she did not name any potential GOP supporters.