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Week in politics: U.S. reaches debt ceiling; a fruitless Supreme Court investigation


The national debt reached $31.4 trillion this week. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urged Congress to raise the debt limit, which it has done 78 times in the last 60 years. But the Republican-controlled House of Representatives doesn't seem to plan to do that any time soon. NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks very much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Speaker McCarthy says he won't agree to raise the debt limit until Democrats agree to spending constraints. Let's hear his explanation.


KEVIN MCCARTHY: So we think if you had a child and you gave him a credit card and they kept hitting the limit, do you just increase the limit? Or do you change their behavior?

SIMON: And how does President Biden respond?

ELVING: President Biden's response is to say, look, Congress passed a budget last year. They need to raise the debt limit to accommodate that and all previous commitments by the federal government. If they want a different budget, they should get busy on the process that builds a new one for fiscal 2024. Now, going back to that hypothetical family in McCarthy's analogy, if they want smaller bills, they should cut back but at the buying stage, not the paying stage. The worst thing they could do would be to refuse that credit card bill when it comes. Yet that is exactly what refusing to raise the debt limit does. It refuses to pay current obligations based on spending and borrowing decisions in the past.

SIMON: Treasury Department says it can do a little fancy footwork to keep the country afloat until June. So is it, forgive me, just a game of chicken until then?

ELVING: Yes, as it has been several times before when one party had the White House, but not both houses of Congress. Now, let's remember, the United States has never defaulted on its debt. As you said, the debt limit has been raised 78 times in just the last 60 years - 29 times by Democratic presidents, 49 times by Republicans. And when one party had control of both the White House and Congress, they've gotten it done pretty smoothly. But if one side decides to take the debt limit as a hostage, it can be a lengthy and suspenseful process, which, in the past, has led to stock market sell-offs and even a downgrading of the U.S. credit rating.

SIMON: Ron, we can expect investigations to begin with the House Oversight Committee. And if there is an impeachment that would involve the Judiciary Committee - the speaker put some of the same Republicans who opposed his bid to become speaker earlier this month on those committees, right?

ELVING: Yes. That seems to have been part of the deal. Several were either added to those committees or kept the seats they already had there. They do plan to investigate Joe Biden, perhaps even to impeach him. They want to look at the business interests of his family and, of course, the classified documents that were mishandled. Now, the White House, meanwhile, thinks all of this amounts to overreach by the House Republicans. They think it won't matter as much to regular voters as it does to Republican primary voters, who may well be the primary audience for all of this.

SIMON: We also learned this week - or rather, we did not learn this week - who was the leaker of the draft Supreme Court opinion on the Dobbs abortion case last May. Are we ever going to find out or just have to wait for the book tour?

ELVING: (Laughter) Well, we probably won't find out in the near future. We may learn something from a deathbed confession someday. This was not an investigation by the FBI or some outside agency. It was an internal review by the court's own people. So we should bear in mind this was no ordinary leak. Many court observers believe it was intended to freeze the vote, to freeze certain justices in support of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Without it, Chief Justice Roberts might well have engineered a compromise that left the basic right to abortion intact. And we should say, Dobbs has had an enormous consequence for pregnant women and their families. And it was a major factor in many election outcomes in 2022, could be again in 2024.

SIMON: President Ardern - Prime Minister Ardern of New Zealand says she's not going to seek another term. Many have suggested that women chiefs of state are under particular pressure.

ELVING: Yes, she was only 37 when she took office in 2017. She's perhaps more popular around the world than in her home country. But it is interesting to see somebody doing it - resigning like this in their 40s.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.

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