As the US House plays a ‘game of chicken’ over the debt ceiling, Vermonters’ Social Security and Medicare benefits are on the line


U.S. House Republicans are holding up a must-pass vote to raise the federal government’s debt ceiling. Vermont’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Becca Balint called the fight a high-stakes “game of chicken.” File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Newly holding a narrow majority, U.S. House Republicans are holding up a must-pass vote to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, raising concerns over a federal government shutdown or suspension of key services like Medicare and Social Security. 

In a Tuesday interview with VTDigger, U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., called the move a high-stakes “game of chicken.”

“Anything that you can think of that is touched by the federal government, it absolutely would touch those things,” Balint said.

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At stake is the basic functioning of the federal government. The year’s appropriations were already set in Congress’s recently passed budget, and without enough funds on hand to pay the balance, Congress needs to raise the debt limit to cover the difference.

Saying that they fundamentally oppose the concept of deficit spending, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and his allies are holding up the vote. 

Vermont has an aging population, so Balint said her top concern is the potential implications for Social Security and Medicare benefits. “Any time we are playing games with the social fabric that keeps (aging Vermonters) housed and fed… is incredibly concerning,” she said.

“We feel so strongly that this does not have to be a game of brinkmanship,” Balint said, referring to the House Democratic caucus. “We’re counting on the American people to understand that we cannot play a game of chicken with Social Security and Medicare.”

Balint said she’s not spiraling into “doomsday scenarios” yet, and she believes that Congress will resolve the fight before government services have to be cut. In the meantime, she said the U.S. Treasury is taking “extraordinary measures” to pay the bills. Springtime tax collections could give Congress breathing room as well, she said.

At the epicenter of the debate, Balint said, is the far-right wing of the Republican Party. She pointed to McCarthy’s contentious bid for House speaker, which extended into a dayslong standoff with the rightwing Freedom Caucus — whose votes he needed in order to win. Ultimately, after a history-making number of failed speaker votes, McCarthy conceded to the Freedom Caucus’s demands.

“This was about McCarthy cobbling together a coalition of extremists that would enable him to be speaker,” Balint said. “You’ve got Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block and this game of chicken around the debt ceiling. This is a direct result of pandering to his extreme wing.”

U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., struck a similar note in a Tuesday appearance on the CNBC program Squawk Box. “The reality is, the Republicans in the House are in charge of this. It’s always been the burden of the majority to raise the debt ceiling and avoid default,” he said.

Welch said that what’s different this year, and what gives him more concern than in previous years, is that “there’s so much division within the Republican side.” He said there is a faction of the party that wants to see the country default on its debt, but he said that “would be catastrophic and it would ultimately be unsustainable.”

“At the end of the day, we will not default, I hope,” Welch said. “But what you’ve seen in the House is that in those 15 votes that Speaker McCarthy had to negotiate, there is a significant power transfer to a very extreme wing of the Republican Party where shutdown is the goal.”

At an unrelated news conference on Tuesday, Republican Gov. Phil Scott said he understands the principle of standing against deficit spending. But the money has already been appropriated, he said, and you have to pay your bills.

“If we’re that worried about our debt, we shouldn’t spend so much money and not have this fight to raise the debt ceiling,” Scott said. “Because we’ve already done the damage, right? We already spent the money. So we should come together in some way, somehow, and take this off the table.”

Though her chamber is at the center of the debate, Balint said on Tuesday that it’s House leadership, not her, at the table negotiating. But she said she’s had “revealing” conversations with rank-and-file Republicans who tell her, “We don’t want to be seen as cutting Social Security or Medicare. That’s not a winning issue for us.”

“That is how some folks in Congress on the other side of the aisle feel about this,” Balint said. “So we’re going to stick to our guns. We know what is the right thing here for older Vermonters. And I think it’s just going to be an opportunity to maybe bring some moderates along, because it’s not a winning strategy for them and they’re not happy about it.”

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As the US House plays a ‘game of chicken’ over the debt ceiling, Vermonters’ Social Security and Medicare benefits are on the line

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