The Hawaii lawmakers said they felt they had no other choice given the nation is on the brink of default.

WASHINGTON — When it came to voting for the debt ceiling deal, U.S. Rep. Ed Case said he didn’t have much of a choice.

Fellow U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda felt the same.

Case and Tokuda were among 165 Democrats who voted to pass compromise legislation between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to suspend the nation’s $31.4 trillion debt limit in exchange for two years of spending caps and other concessions.

The purpose was to avoid default and ensure that the nation could continue paying its bills.

The alternative, experts have warned, was potential economic catastrophe.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., leaves the chamber after passage of a crucial procedural vote on the debt ceiling and budget cuts package he negotiated with President Joe Biden, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, May 31, 2023. The U.S. still faces a potentially disastrous U.S. default in less than a week if Congress fails to act. The bill now goes to the Senate. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-California, leaves the chamber after passage of a crucial procedural vote on the debt ceiling and budget cuts package he negotiated with President Joe Biden, at the Capitol. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite/2023)

Both Case and Tokuda’s votes — as well as those of their Democratic colleagues — were necessary for McCarthy get the bill over the finish line due to fractures within his own party.

The final vote tally was 314-177, with more Democrats than Republicans supporting the bill. In total, 71 Republicans, which is about one-third of the entire House GOP caucus, voted against the measure.

Case said that while he didn’t support many of the provisions that were included in the bill, known as the Fiscal Responsibility Act, he decided it was his duty to ensure that the government continues to meet its financial obligations.

“I’m not going to allow the federal government to default,” Case said.

Tokuda, who represents Hawaii’s 2nd congressional district, said much the same.

The first term congresswoman struggled with her decision throughout most of the day.

Early on when there was a procedural vote to bring the bill to the House floor, she was one of 158 Democrats to vote against doing so while Case was one of 52 to help Republicans get the majority to move the legislation forward.

Rep. Jill Tokuda voted for the national debt ceiling compromise, but she’s worried about potential negative ramifications from the deal. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

She ultimately decided to vote in favor of raising the debt limit, she said, because it was the right thing to do even if it meant hurting those she represents.

“It was with a very heavy heart that I cast a yes vote,” Tokuda said just after walking off the House floor. “My biggest concern is that we just don’t know the potential harms this will have.”

The bill includes provisions that will increase work requirements for federal assistance programs, such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

It also seeks to reform the environmental permitting process to make it easier for certain energy projects to gain federal approval and clears the way for the construction of a 303-mile long fossil fuel pipeline that will run through West Virginia and Virginia. An additional provision seeks to claw back about $30 billion in unspent Covid-19 relief aid that was passed during the height of the pandemic.

Tokuda said it’s hard to say just how many people in Hawaii will be affected by the changes to federal support programs or whether state and local agencies will lose out on relief aid.

Like many other Democrats, Tokuda said she would have preferred a clean debt bill that simply suspended or raised the ceiling, although she would rather get rid of the limit altogether to avoid future standoffs.

Instead, she said she was forced to vote in favor of a GOP-led bill that couldn’t even get the support of the full Republican caucus.

“It should never have reached this point,” Tokuda said. “What you have seen here is a failure of responsibility on behalf of the majority.”

President Joe Biden walks to Marine One after talking with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 31, 2023. Biden is traveling to Colorado. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Joe Biden walks to Marine One after talking with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. Biden is traveling to Colorado. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Tokuda has been unafraid to voice her displeasure with the way negotiations played out.

Last week, she took to the House floor to deliver a fiery speech denouncing the GOP for its partisan tactics that were pushing the nation to the brink of default.

A member of the House Armed Services Committee, she described the situation as “one of the greatest self-inflicted threats to national security in our lifetime.”

“In these chambers we talk a lot about keeping Americans safe, strategic competition and national security,” Tokuda said. “We point a finger at foreign threats and international bad actors, but let us be clear. The biggest threat to American lives and livelihoods is House Republicans holding everyday Americans hostage for partisan political gains.”

Case, who represents the state’s 1st congressional district, has been more measured in his approach. The congressman is considered a moderate within the party in large part due to his fiscal conservatism. He’s been an outlier among many of his colleagues, including those within the state’s own delegation, who said they did not want to negotiate with Republicans over raising the debt limit.

He said he knew in a divided government, one in which Republicans control the House, that wasn’t going to be an option.

The fact that both parties waited until the last minute to come to the negotiating table in any sort of meaningful fashion was bothersome, Case said.

Congress Rep. Ed Case, climate change vote, inflation reduction act
U.S. Rep. Ed Case said the government must continue to meet its financial obligations. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2022)

“The process itself was deplorable,” Case said. “I don’t think we needed to do this. Reasonable people could have sat down a lot earlier and started discussing it.”

While spending caps are necessary, he said, the bill doesn’t do anything to address revenues, such as by increasing taxes. Like Tokuda, he also worries about the unknowns for Hawaii, whether it’s strengthening work requirements or clawing back unspent Covid-19 relief aid.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where votes are expected to occur later in the week.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz told Civil Beat on Wednesday he plans to vote in favor of the legislation despite deep concerns about the provisions contained in it.

Schatz has been among the most vocal Democrats saying that there should be no negotiating over whether the country pays its bills. He’s even introduced legislation seeking to abolish the debt ceiling altogether so that it can no longer be used as a political cudgel.

“This was a ransom,” Schatz said. “I think the president did a pretty good job of keeping the price low, but this is no way to run a country.”

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono used similar language when asked about her position on the debt deal, although she would not say whether she was a yes or no until she’s had more time to review the bill.

In general, the Hawaii senator shares Schatz’s view that the debt ceiling should be eliminated to avoid future high stakes stand offs.

“At some point before we repeat this process I hope that we will deal with the entire debt ceiling issue and have it removed as a point of hostage taking negotiations,” Hirono said.

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