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Missouri delegation splits over bill to end debt ceiling standoff

Illustration by Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated at 8:30 p.m. May 31 with additional reaction and vote count in House

Missouri's congressional delegation has different takes on legislation to end the standoff over the nation’s debt ceiling — and the split is not all along party lines.

As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Congressman Jason Smith played a substantial role in negotiating the deal that would end a standoff over the debt limit.

While the Salem Republican agrees with some of his GOP colleagues that the bill isn’t perfect, he said his party was able to obtain some victories with a divided government where Democrats control the Senate and the White House.

“This will be the first debt limit increase for final passage of a bill that I've ever voted for in my tenure,” Smith said.

 Congressman Jason Smith, seen here at a 2023 Ways and Means Committee hearing, is supporting the debt ceiling deal.
Courtesy of Congressman Jason Smith's office
Congressman Jason Smith, shown at a 2023 Ways and Means Committee hearing, is supporting the debt ceiling deal.

Smith helped manage the debate on Wednesday over the debt limit legislation, which easily passed the House 314 to 117. Smith joined Missouri Republican Reps. Ann Wagner, Blaine Luetkemeyer and Sam Graves and Democrat Emanuel Cleaver in voting for the bill.

Democrat Cori Bush and Republicans Mark Alford and Eric Burlison voted against the measure.

The agreement forged between President Joe Biden and House Republicans effectively takes the question of raising the debt limit off the table through the 2024 election. Among other things, it would reduce the amount of certain discretionary spending for fiscal 2024 and limit the increase in 2025 to 1%.

It would also reduce the amount of money in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act that was slated to go to the Internal Revenue Service. And it would impose some work requirements for people who receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Smith said the work requirements amount to the “most substantial reforms to the program in two decades.”

“Could it go farther? Absolutely. And did our proposals go farther? They did,” Smith said. “But we're a divided government, and it was a negotiation.”

Some of Smith’s GOP colleagues have blasted the bill, contending that it doesn’t do enough to accomplish Republican legislative goals. But Smith said Republicans need to place this deal in perspective.

“In my time serving in Congress, I've only served two years where the Republican Party controlled the White House, the House and the Senate,” Smith said in an interview before the debt limit legislation came to the House floor. “And in those two years where Trump, [then-House Speaker] Paul Ryan and [then-Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell were in charge of each body, we never got these kinds of fiscal restraints.”

Rep. Cori Bush speaks with local high school students during a listening session on various topics that impact their lives, such as gun violence and economic opportunity, on Monday, March 14, 2022, at Sumner High School in north St. Louis, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Rep. Cori Bush speaks with Sumner High School students in March.

Bush said that among other reasons for voting against the bill, she was dismayed that IRS funding was being reduced that could have held “the wealthiest earners and corporations accountable.” She said it “substitutes one crisis for another.”

“And it furthers this vicious cycle where Republicans get to take our economy hostage every few years and demand that the government takes away resources from our most vulnerable as ransom,” Bush said. “We should be voting on a clean lifting of the debt limit today.”

Of particular concern for Bush were the work requirements for SNAP and TANF. The legislation would impose work requirements for some people with no children living in their home. And while that measure exempts homeless people and veterans, Bush said the work requirements in general were “ineffective and inhumane.”

“I cannot greenlight a bill that will take food out of people's mouths or cash away from those who need it,” Bush said. “I came to Congress to save lives. And this bill would effectively enshrine into law the cutting of lifesaving social programs for years to come. I refuse to turn my back on our community. I know what that pain is like.”

Bush said Democrats should have increased the debt limit when the party controlled the House. And when asked if she felt comfortable voting against the measure, since many Democrats supported it, Bush replied, “It's based upon my principles.”

“You all probably saw that with my other votes that I've been OK standing alone,” Bush said. “I have to think about the people who call my office or the people that I meet on the street in St. Louis.”

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Ballwin) touts her accomplishments in Congress on Friday, July 22, 2022, during a meeting of the St. Charles County Pachyderm Club at Mattingly's Sports Bar & Grill in Lake St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, speaks during a July meeting of the St. Charles County Pachyderm Club in Lake St. Louis.

Burlison and Alford joined Bush in voting against the bill. Alford said that while he appreciated McCarthy's efforts to negotiate an end to the debt ceiling impasse, he was uncomfortable with the details.

"I did not come to Washington to toe the party line," Alford said in a statement on his Instagram page. "I came to Washington to be the loudest, strongest, most consistent voice for conservative values that I can be for Missouri's 4th Congressional District."

And Burlison added: "Southwest Missouri sent me to Congress to end Washington's spending addiction — not enable it."

Wagner, R-Ballwin, maintained that “[House Speaker] McCarthy was able to get him [Biden] to negotiate a good first step toward getting our spending under control.”

“We now need a Republican Senate and president to take the next steps,” Wagner said. “This is just a warmup. Congress will continue to fight to save taxpayers even more money every single year. The U.S. has never defaulted on its debt, and it won’t today.”

Cleaver said in a statement that while he was able to support the debt deal in a spirit of compromise, he was disgusted by the process.

Cleaver said the bill "is my second serving of a satan sandwich, and it’s not much better than my first." That's a reference to how Cleaver called a prior deal to raise the debt ceiling a "sugarcoated Satan sandwich."

“While I condemn the process the GOP took to arrive at this deal, it doesn’t change the fact that with Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives, a compromise on the federal budget was inevitable."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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