Voices: Bernie Sanders was right about the debt limit all along. We know who got us into this mess

Washington has long seen Sen Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as a progressive who offers unrealistic solutions and doesn’t consider legislation that can actually pass. That image has never fully matched reality – or even the persona Mr Sanders created for himself during his two presidential campaigns as he has been more than willing to pare down his expectations when need be and work with everyone from the late Sen John McCain on reforming veterans’ health care to Sen Josh Hawley (R-MO) on Covid-19 relief.

Similarly, last Congress he served as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and was more than willing to pare down his proposal for Build Back Better, President Joe Biden’s signature social spending bill, to keep the price tag at a level Sen Joe Manchin (D-WV) would find acceptable.

Of course, Mr Manchin would kill the bill before he resurrected it in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act. Nowadays, Mr Manchin spends most of his time grumbling about how Mr Biden has implemented his signature law.

But while their approaches may seem trivial when it comes to social spending, as Mr Biden and House Speaker McCarthy go 12 rounds on debt ceiling negotiations, history might show that Mr Sanders understood the threat of Republicans holding the nation’s economy hostage more than Mr Manchin.

In 2022, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and with Republicans on the precipice of winning the majority in the midterm elections, Mr Sanders proposed raising the debt limit through budget reconciliation, which would have allowed Democrats to sidestep a Republican filibuster.

Mr Sanders told The New York Times that under normal circumstances, the debt limit would be negotiated in 2023, but if Republicans won the House, they’d hold the debt limit, and therefore the global economy, hostage to extract spending cuts he would find unacceptable.

Before joining the Senate in 2007, Mr Sanders spent many years in the House of Representatives, including when Republicans took control in the Republican Revolution that saw Newt Gingrich turn the debt limit into a bargaining chip during Bill Clinton’s presidency. As budget chairman, he saw how Republicans had become increasingly radicalised.

But Mr Manchin balked at the idea, telling reporters at the time, “I don’t think it should go to reconciliation” and “my goodness, it’s something we’ve always worked together on.”

This represented a willful ignorance on the part of the West Virginia Democrat. He had not served in the Senate for a year when House Republicans took the global economy to the edge of collapse in 2011 during debt limit negotiations with the Obama administration. He had seen them do this time and again, but still assumed that Republicans would act in good faith on the debt limit and not tank the economy.

In addition, as Joseph Zeballos-Roig at Semafor said, most non-progressive Democrats did not see the urgency of acting on the debt limit, focusing instead on passing the Omnibus spending bill to make the government run until the end of this fiscal year.

That is somewhat understandable because Republicans would likely have tried the same stunt with the Omnibus come this year. But the Omnibus comes every year as must-pass legislation and, inevitably, these same fights would have bubbled up had Congress raised the debt limit last year.

Letting Republicans negotiate the debt ceiling gave Washington and the Biden administration one more additional headache.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) told The Independent that the CPC had signed a letter urging a debt limit increase last year specifically because they feared the exact scenario Washington now faces.

“I do understand that the Senate would have had to agree to do that as well,” she said. “We would have had to have all the Democrats in the Senate agreed to do that. So there were challenges with it, but obviously if we could have dealt with it before now that would have been good.”

Progressives now fear that given the current setup, Republicans are forcing Democrats to pick between draconian cuts they find unacceptable or a catastrophic default.

Rep Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), who worries about work requirements for social welfare programs, said the best way to avoid another standoff is to elect more Democrats in the House and Senate so the caucus doesn’t need to worry about people like Mr Manchin.

“We got to win like four or five additional Senate seats, flip the House and win the presidency again, so we can get real stuff done for the American people,” he said.

But for now, the nation is paying a price for Mr Manchin’s naivete.