WASHINGTON — With a default on U.S. debt looming as early as next week, the House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to suspend the debt ceiling, with Alaska Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola and the majority of Democrats lending their support to the deal.
Asked about her position on the bill, Peltola said, “I’m less supportive of the actual deal and more in support of keeping our government on the rail.”
If signed into law ahead of the so-called “X-date” when the U.S. would begin to default on payments — most recently estimated to be June 5 — the bill would avert what Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has called an economic “calamity.”
The bill, called the Fiscal Responsibility Act, is a negotiated deal between the White House and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The measure — which includes spending caps, permitting reforms and changes to food stamp policies, and suspends the debt ceiling until 2025 — garnered support from both sides of the aisle, with more than a dozen more Democrats than Republicans ultimately voting in favor of the deal.
Peltola said she wishes negotiations on the debt started earlier in the congressional term but was thankful negotiators ultimately reached a deal.
“I do think that we came to a good compromise on both sides,” she said.
Peltola said she is encouraged by the many of the bill’s reforms to permitting, as she has consistently advocated for a more streamlined process for infrastructure projects. Those provisions, however, have enraged environmental groups and several Democratic climate hawks in Congress.
The bill changes elements of the National Environmental Policy Act by implementing a one-year deadline for environmental assessments and a two-year deadline for environmental impact statements. The bill also allows project developers to write their own environmental reviews with federal oversight, among other changes.
“I think that any way that we can get towards policies that help streamline NEPA reviews and help get projects permitted in a much more timely way, is really, really important,” Peltola said in a Wednesday interview ahead of the vote. “... Both for petroleum and non-petroleum projects, for us to really transition to renewables we have to get serious about permitting reform.”
In particular, Peltola emphasized that the bill’s permitting provisions help fast-track energy storage projects and designate one lead agency to develop environmental reviews for each project. But she said she thinks permitting reform will continue to need fine-tuning.
“I think that we’re going to have to continually be working on NEPA reform,” she said. “I think it’s just going to be one of those things that we’re always trying to make better.”
Peltola’s vote on the bill was aligned with other moderate House Democrats, including many from the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, of which she is a member. However, some in her party, like House Natural Resources Ranking Member Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, voted against the bill, taking issue with the permitting measures and a section that would approve a controversial natural gas pipeline in West Virginia championed by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
Some members of the Democratic conference also expressed frustration that the bill increases the age that adults have to work to benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from 50 to 54.
The bill also expands food stamp eligibility for veterans and the homeless. The Congressional Budget Office estimated Tuesday that spending on SNAP would actually increase under the deal.
Peltola said her fellow Democrats shared what they see as downsides to the bill in a caucus meeting Wednesday morning.
But she said she thought that party leadership effectively communicated “that the constituencies that people have concerns for are at a much, much greater risk by not passing the deal.”
For those people, Congress “would be totally pulling the rug out from underneath them if we didn’t pass this bill,” Peltola said.
The negotiated debt deal is not the first attempt by House Republican leadership to raise the debt ceiling this term. In April, House Republicans passed the “Limit Save Grow Act” which included broader GOP priorities like overhauling swaths of the Democrats’ signature tax and climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act. Peltola voted against that measure, saying it would see “Alaska seniors, veterans, and children becoming collateral damage in this process.”
The Fiscal Responsibility Act now heads to the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Alaska Republican Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski have not said whether they will support it. In response to a reporter, Sullivan said he is “very concerned” about defense provisions in the bill which include an $886 billion cap on defense spending for fiscal year 2024 that several GOP senators have called inadequate.