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With high stakes, state representatives remain divided on debt ceiling

With Pennsylvania’s lawmakers in Washington sharply divided, the Senate is set for a showdown that could end in an unprecedented debt default or a government shutdown.

Battles over the debt ceiling and government funding have become an almost perennial tradition in Washington, particularly when the president and Congress are at odds. This month — with a Democratic president, a narrowly Democratic-led House and a split Senate — those battles have resumed.

On Tuesday, the House voted 220-211 to keep the government funded and to raise the debt limit, allowing the United States to pay off its bondholders for a while longer. Pennsylvania’s delegation was split along party lines, with every Democrat voting to raise the limit and every Republican voting against it.

The measure now moves to the Senate, where Republicans have shown little interest in helping to raise the ceiling — despite having voted to do so two years ago.

“Failing to raise the debt ceiling would indeed be a disaster,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said on Twitter this week, citing 2019 comments by Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell. “Republicans need to start acting responsibly and make sure we pay our bills.”

What would happen if the ceiling wasn’t raised? Before long, the U.S. government could find itself unable to pay back creditors as debts come due, causing far-reaching economic effects and a damaging hit to lenders’ willingness to give more. Experts cited by the Washington Post said millions of jobs could be lost amid an ensuing economic crisis.

At the same time, the federal government could undergo a shutdown — a not-uncommon occurrence in the past decade — if funds aren’t approved to keep it running. The funding and debt deadlines face Congress as a double threat.

Neither party’s representatives have said they want that to happen. But some GOP lawmakers are at least maintaining their poker faces.

This week, a group of senators including Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., proposed a bill that would prioritize certain areas of government spending if the debt ceiling is breached. The bill, which has not passed, would aim to maintain funding for the military, veterans programs and Social Security.

Its sponsors made little secret of the bill’s partisan intentions, as they called for Democrats to pass any ceiling increases without GOP help.

“If they insist on going down this partisan path, Democrats should take full responsibility and use the procedural tools available to them to raise the debt ceiling alone,” Toomey said.

Senators have said they expect a vote in the coming days.

Bill would restrict charter ads

If you listen to the radio, there’s a good chance you’ve heard ads that end with the line: “Paid for with Pennsylvania taxpayer dollars.”

Ads for state services and programs have included the phrase since at least 2015, when a bill requiring the signoff became law. Now, a state lawmaker is reviving attempts to include the phrase in ads for charter schools — the publicly funded, privately run schools that aim to compete with the public school system.

“Curious as to who pays for those large billboards and fancy promotional materials for charter schools?” Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, said Wednesday in a memo to colleagues. “You do!”

Schlossberg said charter schools seem to be “free” for students, whose parents may not know that public funds pay for their services. He said he intends to propose a bill that would bar the schools from using that language and require them to acknowledge their taxpayer-funded status.

A similar rule was included in a sweeping 2017 charter-school reform bill, but that bill failed to pass in its final form despite making it through both chambers of the General Assembly.

GOP banks on ‘election integrity’

State Republicans are making the most of new efforts to subpoena 2020 voters’ records, including using the “election integrity” push as a fundraising tool.

GOP leaders initially appeared hesitant to pursue a so-called election audit, a move pushed by Trump and his allies who claim the 2020 election was marred by fraud. Since lawmakers launched a wave of subpoenas for voter data this month, however, party officials seem to have recognized the power of the election security issue.

Last week, the state GOP’s official Twitter account shared news of the subpoenas. Alongside the story, the party account said: “You can help the PA GOP #SecureTheVote by joining our Election Integrity Team!”

The link to join the team led to a GOP fundraising website.

Whatever lawmakers think of the election audit push, the issue has clearly raised excitement among some GOP activists. In early September, ProPublica reported on a surge of interest in local Republican Party offices across the country, fueled in part by the belief that local officers can better monitor elections.

While Pittsburgh-area GOP branches didn’t report a significant increase in interest, several county party officers in central and eastern Pennsylvania noted a surge in activism, the outlet reported.

Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers, owner of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.

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