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Centrist House Democrats signal openness to higher deficits to pass Biden's plans

Fiscally minded Democrats who will help shape Biden's ambitions if he's elected say the coronavirus crisis is not the time to worry about national debt.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is greeted by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as he arrives for President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Capitol Hill on Jan. 27, 2010.
Then-Vice President Joe Biden is greeted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi as he arrives for President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Jan. 27, 2010.Jason Reed / Reuters file

WASHINGTON — The leaders of a group of fiscally conscious House Democrats say the coronavirus crisis has sidelined concerns about the national debt, potentially opening up room for Joe Biden to enact broad programs next year if elected president.

"This is an emergency. And getting bogged down in trying to identify offsets is not appropriate in an emergency," Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., the chair of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, told reporters on a conference call Monday.

Centrist Democrats have exercised more leverage when their own party controls the White House and previously used their clout to reduce budget deficits. But with an ongoing health and economic crisis, Biden could move quickly to enact expensive proposals while the moderates in his party remain open to increasing the national debt.

Kilmer said the coalition is determined to solve problems "in a fiscally responsible way," but that fiscal hawks agree on the need for new spending to address the "largest public health crisis over the course of modern history" and "the largest economic disruption since the Great Depression."

Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., the group's vice chair for member services, concurred: "Now is not the time to turn off the faucet."

"We should be using our strong balance sheet to borrow to stimulate the economy. And that may involve more programs like climate and transportation going into the Biden administration," Peters said.

The lawmakers were responding to a question from NBC News about whether the group of Democrats would insist on paying for all of Biden’s new plans without adding more debt. The answers suggest that they may be willing to keep their concerns to the side if the crisis continues into 2021.

These Democrats view themselves as the party's vanguards of fiscal responsibility and will have a voice in setting the scope of Biden’s agenda if the party sweeps the 2020 election. They spoke as the two parties are on the cusp of negotiating a new coronavirus relief package with President Donald Trump to combat rising infections in many parts of the country. Congress has approved trillions of dollars in deficit-financed coronavirus relief this year.

The New Democrat Coalition boasts 104 members in the 116th Congress. Dozens of them are first-term lawmakers who put the party in the majority and are influential with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Centrist Democrats played a role in shaping the ambitions of Barack Obama when he was president by demanding that many new spending initiatives not generate more debt, including the Affordable Care Act.

Last week, Biden rolled out a sweeping $2 trillion plan to address climate change and rebuild U.S. cities with clean energy investments. He has also proposed a $1.3 trillion infrastructure investment, among other spending plans and ideas to finance them.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the runner-up for the 2020 and 2016 Democratic nomination contests, said on MSNBC this month that Biden would be "the most progressive president since FDR" if he enacts the policy recommendations of a joint task force set up by the two former rivals.

On the Monday call, Peters said Congress must be transparent about the fiscal impact of new programs it passes, and also suggested setting targets in order "to make sure that we do tackle the debt issue and the deficit issue when we get in better times."