I'm trying to understand some of the comments in the press that Democrats have gained leverage by the three-month extension tied to hurricane relief.

This is what I don't understand - it seems to me they are just pushing off the date, so how does it give them more leverage to have the debt discussions three months from now versus right now? And how is it better vs pushing it off six months or a year?

Is it because they can't make demands now without being seen as obstructing hurricane relief?

  • 1
    I think you also need to view the "gain leverage" not necessarily in an absolute sense, but compared to the offered alternative by the GOP - an 18 month extension. You have a measure that is necessary for government to operate and function. Being able to revisit that multiple times vs none would seem to offer opportunities to make demands and gain concessions. Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 14:23
  • Related: politics.stackexchange.com/q/24430/1370 Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 20:57

2 Answers 2


Because the Democrats are the minority in both houses of Congress and also lack control of the White House, they have extremely limited ability to push for any priorities they may have. The filibuster gives them some ability to prevent things they don’t want, but it’s imperfect and cannot be used to push for any policy, only to push against.

So the only way the Democrats have available to enact policies they favor is to convince Republicans to allow it as part of their bills. Needless to say, Republicans aren’t going to do that often or easily. If Republicans were in complete agreement, in fact, it would never happen. Unfortunately for Republicans, however, they are not in complete agreement. On certain issues, there are enough Republicans on either side of the party who refuse to vote for the same thing.

We saw this with healthcare: anything Senator Collins and Senator Murkowski were willing to vote for, the more conservative wing of the party (particularly in the House) would refuse. Anything that got those conservative votes, would alienate Collins and Murkowski—which is exactly what happened, and then Senator McCain provided the final nail in the coffin objecting to the entire process.1

But healthcare did not give Democrats much opportunity to pass anything of their own. A few members of Congress did try to come up with a bipartisan bill, but (at least so far) that hasn’t gone anywhere, and it’s hard to imagine it ever will. Instead, Republicans simply moved on to something else: they could, and did, choose to just pass nothing.

The debt ceiling is similar, but different in that one key way: on the debt ceiling, while the Republicans have similar problems getting votes from both sides of their party at the same time, passing nothing is not an option. If the debt ceiling is not raised, the US could be forced to default on some of its obligations. Note that the US federal government has never defaulted on a debt in its history.2 The stability, reliability, and certainty of US government bonds forms a significant aspect of the global economy’s foundation. A default could very easily lead to a massive global financial meltdown. The Treasury Department would, no doubt, do what it could to avoid this, and, if forced to, might cancel contracts and similar where possible to avoid technically defaulting, but whether or not the markets would be comfortable with this is anyone’s guess—even these measures could be enough to cause calamity. And since Republicans control both chambers of Congress as well as the White House, that result would be largely seen as their fault.3

That means that Republicans must pass something to raise the debt ceiling, and they have to do it even though certain members of their party will refuse to do so unless it is coupled with large spending cuts, and certain other members of their party will refuse to do it if those spending cuts are there. To make up for the members of their own party who refuse to vote for it, they need Democrat votes. And that gives the Democratic party the opportunity to ask for something in return.

However, right now, raising the debt ceiling is tied to hurricane relief. If the Democrats try to use it as leverage now, they look really bad for trying to profit from tragedy.4 So now would be a bad time to try to ask for anything. So instead, they passed it without “getting” anything in return—but only for three months, when you can be sure that they’ll be asking for things. That might be protection for the Dreamers,5 shoring up the ACA,6 preventing Republicans from going through with their planned tax cuts,7 or ending the debt ceiling altogether.8 Or something else entirely, depending on events between now and then and what comes up.

The circumstances of this deal are also significant. The Democrats suggested this deal, and then got what they wanted from a Republican president who has a Republican Congress. Said Republican Congress really did not want this deal; their ideas included either

  • keeping hurricane relief separate from the debt ceiling, and combining the raising of the debt ceiling with spending cuts (potentially eliminating the Democrat ability to filibuster since they could not block raising the debt ceiling),

  • or else raise the debt ceiling for a lot longer, until after the 2018 elections (denying Democrats the tool for a long time, eliminating the debt ceiling as an issue during the 2018 campaign, and allowing Congress to deal with it the next time fresh off an election and relatively safe from concerns about the following election in 2020).

Either of these options would have been really bad for Democrats. By securing the deal they did, they avoid having either of them and simultaneously get options for the future. That is a very large success for a party with as little real power as the Democrats currently have, and the narrative of that success may give the Democrats some momentum towards further success.9

  1. It was widely reported that many members of the House only voted for their bill on the assurance it would never become law but rather would be “fixed” in the Senate, and then the Senate turned around and tried to pass a bill again on the assurance it would never become law but would be “fixed” in a joint conference between both chambers. McCain had concerns that the conference would fail, the dummy bill would just be passed by the House as it was, and then signed into law, even though it was never meant to be law and, in his opinion (and the opinion of many others who did vote for it), had severe problems.

  2. Individual states have defaulted in the past, but never the federal government. This was quite an impressive feat when it was a fledgling nation with substantial war debts. Today, no one is impressed when the world’s greatest economy pays its bills—it’s assumed that this should just happen, because of course it should. Particularly since a huge chunk of that debt is money owed by America to America.

  3. The question of who would hold responsibility for a failure to raise the debt ceiling and a government default, posed as a hypothetical question, has received quite a bit of polling and a substantial majority say they would assign the blame squarely on the Republican party

  4. Note that “playing chicken” with the debt ceiling is also a very bad look. Failing to raise it could arguably be worse than not providing hurricane relief. Democrats claim some excuse in that 1. the Republicans control both chambers, so they should be able to pass an increase to the debt ceiling on their own, and 2. Republicans executed this sort of maneuver first, during the Obama administration. But personally, even as a staunch Democrat who will likely support any policy they choose to push using the debt ceiling as leverage, I still don’t like it. But because the debt ceiling is technical and abstract, profiting off of hurricane relief looks worse.

  5. Dreamers are those brought illegally to the United States as children. President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allowed Dreamers to avoid deportation under certain conditions; President Trump has signed an order to end this program in March. Protecting Dreamers is a Democrat priority, though some Republicans are also interested in doing so, possibly including President Trump himself (his statements on the subject have been contradictory).

  6. Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. While any legislative changes to the ACA have thus far failed, the executive branch (President Trump and his administration) have been taking actions to limit the program. These actions have threatened the function and stability of the program as a whole, so Democrats may well be interested in trying to get the administration to handle the program less antagonistically, to prevent such instability. This could be either a deal made directly with Trump, or a provision in a law making the requirements on how the administration handles it more strict.

  7. Not coincidentally, the current plan is for such changes to be debated and, Republicans hope, passed sometime around the end of the year—the same time the debt ceiling will be coming back up. Democrats oppose this tax plan, seeing it as a giveaway to the rich that comes at the expense of the poor.

  8. For all the debt ceiling is a potent tool for Democrats right now, and for all they are in very short supply of workable tools, generally speaking Democrats are opposed to the debt ceiling. Historically, the debt ceiling was raised as a matter of course (there being no question that the country should pay its bills), but during the Obama administration Republicans turned it into an extremely dangerous fight that was held repeatedly, trying to tack their own goals onto it to force President Obama to sign them into law. You will notice that this is very similar to what Democrats might do with it now. Democrats (and, to be fair, many Republicans) objected to it then, and many still do. They may prefer to give up their leverage in order for this to stop being a risk the country takes. Particularly since by the time the three months are up, we will be getting into 2018 which is an election year—Democrats hope that they will do well in those elections, and if they do, it will be useful for them to not have the debt ceiling to worry about.

  9. The significance of “momentum” in politics is likely overstated, probably significantly, by pundits and the media. However, since Congress and the President pay attention to those pundits, these kinds of semi-fictitious narratives can turn real-ish. At any rate, while momentum may not really help as much as some people believe, it certainly seems unlikely to hurt.

  • I thought the primary issue was that 3 months was way better than the alternative 18 months because republicans have to figure it out before the mid-terms. I think the main benefit for the democrats is that a hotly contentious issue has to be dealt with before mid-terms. Which likely can only benefit democrats at this point.
    – user1530
    Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 21:21
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    Can we just take a minute to say how sad of a commentary it is that "I'm going to vote for a bill I don't believe in because someone else will fix it" is the standard operating procedure of the governing body for the world's largest economy? "No I'm sorry, there isn't time." - John Cleese, probably.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 1:46
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    @corsiKa I would say we’re not quite at the point where it’s standard operating procedure, but it certainly has been a thing. This latest round on healthcare is probably the most stark example (and almost-certainly the most blatant, with several Senators refusing to vote for it unless Paul Ryan explicitly promised he wouldn’t turn around and just pass their bill), but there are others—arguably including the ACA itself, though it was only “details” that needed adjustments (which largely never happened because of the death of Senator Ted Kennedy and Democrats’ failure to keep his seat).
    – KRyan
    Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 1:52
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    "If the debt ceiling is not raised, the US would be forced to default on some of its loans" is just not true. The treasury receives enough income in estimated tax prepayments to service the debt. Something would have to give, but instead of defaulting on debt, the government could break promises to spend additional money. While that's scary for industries that have spent capital and hired people to support a government contract, it's totally different from default, because the money doesn't actually belong to the contractors until the work is done. Cancellation of some contracts is possible
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 3:28
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    Can we please not do this discussion here? I have opinions on this subject, and I explicitly left them out of the answer; I just reported the beliefs of Democrats. I did this specifically to avoid causing a discussion on the subject here, which is 1. not allowed, and 2. not something I am interested in. Braiam, Wildcard, if you want to discuss it I encourage you to start a chat room for it.
    – KRyan
    Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 20:49

The Republicans reportedly wanted to extend the limit enough to be safe until after the 2018 midterms.

Trump accepted the deal that gave him a mere 3 months of runway, thus leaving the door open for a government shutdown before a critical election period. The Republicans fear Democrats could use this leverage to get in the way of the tax reform they've in mind in early December.

  • Ok, but why not do it now? What do Dems gain by blocking three months from now vs now?
    – JabaTheHut
    Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 17:08
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    @JabaTheHut - per the last sentence in the answer: extra leverage when the upcoming tax reform is brought up for discussion, which should occur precisely around when the debt limit will rear its ugly head again. Interestingly the first article I linked to suggests that the Democrats (and possibly Trump) might want to remove the debt limit altogether. Which might actually be A Good Thing. Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 17:40

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