- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 19, 2011

With time running out on a looming debt crisis, the president and his allies in the Senate are fighting to win a raise in the government’s borrowing limit, only to be stymied by a minority insisting that a spending freeze be part of the deal.

Sounds like present day, but it was October 1984 — when the partisan roles were reversed. Republicans controlled the White House and the Senate, while Democrats controlled the House. Democrats also could sustain filibusters in the Senate and were balking at raising the debt ceiling unless it was attached to big spending cuts

That year, Democrats defeated a debt-limit increase by voting it down in the Senate and forcing Republican leaders to send Air Force planes — at a cost of more than $4,000 in taxpayer money — to collect absent senators and rush them back to Washington for a revote that ultimately passed.

One of the leaders of that 1984 Democratic revolt — a man who tried to impose a spending freeze and fought for a smaller debt increase than President Reagan wanted — was none other than current Vice President Joseph R. Biden, then a senator from Delaware and now President Obama’s right-hand man in negotiations with Congress.

“I must express my protest against continually increasing the debt without taking positive steps to slow its growth. Therefore, I am voting against any further increase in the national debt,” Mr. Biden said in a floor speech just before helping fellow Democrats defeat an increase of $251 billion on a 46-14 vote.

He wanted a smaller rise in the debt limit of $157 billion and seemed to emphasize spending cuts rather than tax increases — a different stance from what he takes as part of the Obama White House.

Mr. Biden’s office declined to comment for this article.

The role reversal is par for the course in this debate. Back in 1984, it was Mr. Reagan, a Republican, who was asking for the debt increase and, like Mr. Obama last week, it was the Reagan administration that was warning that Social Security benefits would be cut within weeks.

“Without the authority to raise new funds from market borrowing, the Treasury is rapidly depleting its cash balances and will thus be unable to meet the government’s obligations, including issuing checks to Social Security recipients, meeting the payroll for our men and women in the armed forces, federal retirement and other payments that are required by law,” Tim McNamar, the deputy secretary, said in a letter to Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican.

The same Republican leaders who are fighting to link spending cuts to a debt-ceiling increase have voted for “clean” raises in years past.

The Obama White House drove that point home last week. Press secretary Jay Carney used Thursday’s briefing to read to reporters the number of times each of the four GOP negotiators had voted to raise the debt limit since 1990: House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, six times; House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, five times; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, eight times; and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, six times.

Mr. Carney also repeated Mr. Obama’s assertion that he now sees his 2006 vote against raising the debt ceiling as “a mistake.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, is pleading with senators for a deal. In 1984, it was Sen. Howard H. Baker, the legendary Republican leader who was about to retire, doing the begging.

Expecting a formality, Mr. Baker called for a voice vote. Democrats demanded a roll call, and the debt increase failed overwhelmingly. It was opposed by nearly every Democrat and a cadre of conservative Republicans.

Mr. Baker spent the next hours cajoling his colleagues and even dispatching two Air Force planes on last-minute missions to collect absent Republicans who had returned home to campaign ahead of an election within a few weeks.

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