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Rep. Ro Khanna: Avoiding Default Was Necessary, But Debt Deal Was Passed at Expense of “Most Vulnerable”

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After a contentious battle with the Republican House majority, President Biden and Congress have agreed on a bipartisan deal suspending the debt ceiling until January 1, 2025. Among other concessions to Republicans, the deal caps domestic spending below the current rate of inflation, allows for larger increases to the military budget, implements new work requirements for social programs and fast-tracks the approval and construction of the controversial 300-plus-mile-long fracked gas Mountain Valley Pipeline through West Virginia and Virginia. Our guest, California Congressmember Ro Khanna, is among a number of progressive Democrats who voted against the legislation. He calls it a “punch in the gut to climate activists” that “came on the backs of the poor, of students, of the most vulnerable, of women.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden is expected to soon sign legislation suspending the debt ceiling, after the Senate voted 63 to 36 on a bipartisan deal that had been approved by the House earlier. The bill will prevent the United States from defaulting for the first time in history. The legislation also caps domestic spending below the current rate of inflation, while allowing larger increases to the military budget. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke after the vote.

MAJORITY LEADER CHUCK SCHUMER: Democrats are feeling very good tonight. We’ve saved the country from the scourge of default, even though there were some on the other side who wanted default, wanted to lead us to default. We may be a little tired, but we did it, so we’re very, very happy. Default was the giant sword hanging over America’s head. But because of the good work of President Biden, as well as Democrats in the House and Democrats in the Senate, we are not defaulting. …

Tonight’s vote is a good outcome, because Democrats did a very good job taking the worst parts of the Republican plan off the table. And that’s why Dems voted overwhelmingly for this bill, while Republicans, certainly in the Senate, did not.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahead of the final vote, the Senate rejected a number of amendments to the legislation, including one by Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, who wanted to remove a section of the bill that fast-tracks the approval and construction of the controversial 300-plus-mile-long fracked gas Mountain Valley Pipeline through West Virginia and Virginia. Many progressive Democrats voted against the debt legislation due to the pipeline provision, as well as new work requirements for thousands of people receiving food stamps and other forms of government assistance. Meanwhile, a number of Republicans opposed the deal for not cutting nonmilitary spending enough.

Some of the senators who voted against the final debt deal include independent Senator Bernie Sanders, Democrats John Fetterman, Ed Markey, Jeff Merkley and Elizabeth Warren, and Republicans Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Josh Hawley.

We go now to California Democratic Congressmember Ro Khanna, who voted against the legislation in the House.

So, can you respond to the passage in both the House and the Senate, why you voted against it, and why you also seem to be glad that it passed?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, it’s good that our nation avoided default. But it came on the backs of the poor, of students, of the most vulnerable, of women. It was a punch in the gut to young climate activists across the country by entrenching the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

And progressives have been saying, “Why didn’t we increase the debt ceiling back in the lame duck, when we were calling for it?” Progressives have been saying, “Why can’t the Treasury Department just continue to pay the bills as they have the constitutional obligation and duty to do?” Larry Tribe has said they can do that. The Treasury could keep paying the bills, and the Fed is not going to bounce the Treasury checks. And the courts would have upheld that.

So there are many other ways that we could have avoided this default. And we did not think that we should avoid the default on the backs of the most vulnerable.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why didn’t the House, when it was still in control of the — when the Democrats were still in control, after they lost in 2022 but the new party — the new Congress hadn’t taken over, why didn’t they do this?

REP. RO KHANNA: We should have. Some of us were calling for us to do that. Now, back then, we were trying to finish the Inflation Reduction Act. That is a very important piece of legislation, and I’m proud of it. But there may have been a hesitation to negotiate both for that and for the debt ceiling increase. That was a mistake.

I’d much rather that we had been negotiating just with Senator Manchin than with McCarthy. Maybe the Mountain Valley Pipeline would still have been something that would have been in the agreement, though many would have worked very, very hard to prevent that, but certainly some of the framework, which increases defense spending and decreases social spending for social programs, would not have been in that framework. And you also would have had some alternative sources of revenue, because even Senator Manchin believes we need to get rid of the carried interest loophole, that we need to increase taxes. So, the biggest mistake, in my view, was that we did not do this in the lame duck.

But the second point is, it’s not just the left or the fringe that is saying that the president is constitutionally obligated to pay the bills of what past congresses have said. This is Larry Tribe’s view. Paul Krugman has said, “Why is Treasury not coming up with multiple places for paying these bills?” And it was actually Secretary Yellen who was warning back in November and December, urging the Congress to do something.

AMY GOODMAN: House Minority Whip Katherine Clark said Republicans forced Democrats’ hand.

REP. KATHERINE CLARK: There is no perfect negotiation when you are the victims of extortion. Nobody likes to pay a ransom note, and that’s exactly what tonight’s vote is.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can elaborate on that? And also talk about what it means, these work requirements for people who, for example, are sick or hungry.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, let me answer the work requirements first. Think of a 51- or 52-year-old mom who is disabled or has back pain or has some health condition, and she isn’t able to go to work. Now she will be denied $6 a day. Now, if she has a custodian relationship with a child, and may not be technically recognized under the law as a parent-child relationship — this is going to hurt women in their early fifties the most, according to a lot of the studies.

Now, people say that the president got an exemption for veterans and for homelessness, and I applaud him for that. But you can’t penalize and hurt one group of people and then applaud that another group of people is being helped, and think that that all washes out and is fine. That sort of utilitarian calculus of the pain of one group is justified by the improvement of the others, I don’t believe in that way of moral/ethical reasoning. I believe in the dignity of every individual, that you don’t hurt one group to help another. And Democrats should not be for hurting women in their fifties, poor Americans in their fifties to try to reduce a deficit, when we could have been reducing extraordinary defense spending or these extraordinary tax cuts.

And Katherine Clark is right. Look, the Republicans are the ones who held the economy hostage here, who demanded a ransom note. But we shouldn’t then say, “OK, we’re going to embrace a framework that adopts their view, that defense should go up and social spending should go down.” What we should say is, “If they’re going to hold us ransom, then we’re going to pay the bills and go to the Roberts court.” Is the Roberts court really going to tell Janet Yellen to stop paying bills that she’s constitutionally obligated to do? Is the Roberts court really going to tell Powell to bounce Janet Yellen’s checks? I just don’t see the courts doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of MVP, which of course has positive connotation when it comes to sports, but is the Mountain Valley Pipeline, that so many have opposed, saying that the greenhouse gas emissions that could result from the fracked gas that goes through the pipeline could be equivalent to something between 26 and 37 coal-fired power plants. You have that within this bill. You also have Biden going forward on the Willow project in Alaska. Can you talk about the significance of this, and also a person you’ve talked about as your friend, Senator Manchin, the power he has almost as the second President Joe?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, this is a punch in the gut to climate activists around the country, to young people around the country. They saw some momentum with the Inflation Reduction Act, where Congress finally passes a major investment in solar and wind, in batteries, in electric vehicles. And then they see the administration approve the Willow project in Alaska, and they’re bewildered. How can an administration that is focused on climate then be allowing for this drilling in Alaska?

And now they see the expedited approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, saying that the courts don’t matter; if the courts are finding environmental harm, we’re going to go build this pipeline that is going to hurt local communities, that is going to hurt the environment, and we’re going to do this in a bill that has nothing to do with climate policy. This just drives a cynicism. And some of us voted “no” to speak up for them. But we really have to understand that there’s a disillusionment that we risk every time we do this. We chip away at young people’s faith that this country is serious about the climate.

Now, I said to Senator Manchin during the whole Inflation Reduction Act that we were going to have to make compromises with him. And I was part of some of those conversations. But I think the Mountain Valley Pipeline is a bridge too far. We did make compromises with him. We had funding in there for carbon capture. We had funding in there for nuclear. We had funding in there for technologies of potential carbon removal. The amounts that we allocated for climate were far less, ultimately, than what we started with. We got rid of a lot of the sticks for utilities from the clean electricity program. We reduced the fee on methane. It’s not like there was not a compromise. This is a bridge too far.

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