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Democrats And Republicans Are In A Fight Over Federal Spending

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The federal government is about to run out of borrowing power, which raises the prospect of a potential federal default on debts as soon as next month. To prevent that, Democrats say they need to raise the debt limit, which is a routine thing to do, but it's become a political fight. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has more.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Democrats in Washington say increasing the debt limit is just a routine part of governing. It's a cap Congress sets on how much the government can borrow. And it is so routine that Congress has adjusted those limits 17 times in the past 20 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NANCY PELOSI: We Democrats supported lifting the debt ceiling because it's the responsible thing to do. I would hope that the Republicans would act in a similarly responsible way.

SNELL: That's House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a press conference earlier this month. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says Democrats are in charge now. And if Democrats want to keep spending money without Republican votes, they'll also have to increase the debt limit without Republican votes. Those who know McConnell best say he's not going to budge and neither are Senate Republicans.

ROHIT KUMAR: There is this sense that he's bluffing or that there are 10 votes for the taking without his blessing. And I just think that's wrong.

SNELL: Rohit Kumar served as McConnell's deputy chief of staff. He says political bickering over the borrowing policy is both predictable and bad for the economy. He says both sides have used the critical issue since at least the 1980s to try to force the other party to agree to political concessions. This latest political fight over the debt is infuriating Democrats like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Democrats voted to increase the borrowing cap under President Trump even as the debt ballooned when Republicans approved costly tax cuts and partisan spending priorities.

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: And it's quite rich coming from a party - and the party of Trump - who did $1.5 trillion of tax cuts and didn't pay for a penny of them.

SNELL: Democrats say Republicans helped create the debt and need to help make sure the government doesn't default. But Republicans say it's not that simple. In recent years Democrats did go along with some debt limit increases under former President Trump but often while the two parties were working out bipartisan priorities, like avoiding spending caps. Now Democrats are trying to pass more than $3 trillion in spending without any Republican votes. So Republicans are taking advantage of the political moment.

KUMAR: Senator McConnell's been saying that since July that, A, House and Senate Democrats are going to use this partisan tool for spending and tax. It is also available to increase the debt limit.

SNELL: Nadeam Elshami was a top adviser to Pelosi in 2011 when the credit agency Standard and Poor's downgraded the nation's credit worthiness in a similar standoff. He says both parties should have learned the lesson that even the threat of a default can seriously harm the economy. A downgrade would impact everything from interest rates on mortgages to the market value of retirement funds.

NADEAM ELSHAMI: You are risking the economy of the United States. You're risking the full faith and credit of the United States. You are risking another downgrade. This should not be a political football.

SNELL: Democrats are planning to attach a debt limit increase to a spending bill that's needed to prevent the government from shutting down on October 1. They also plan to include critical money for communities hit by hurricanes, droughts and fires and money to resettle refugees from Afghanistan. It's a bundle meant to entice Republicans to hold their noses and vote for the entire package. And Elshami says voting for the increase is just the right thing to do.

ELSHAMI: You can't ask Democrats for help one Congress and then turn your back the other Congress.

SNELL: Democrats have less than 10 days before the government spending deadline to try to make Republicans agree. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.