How Grassley, Ernst approached debt ceiling under different presidents

The United States avoided a doomsday scenario for the economy this week, when both chambers of Congress approved a deal to prevent a default on the country’s debts in exchange for future spending cuts. Iowa’s entire Congressional delegation supported the legislation, marking the first time in decades that every member of the U.S. House and Senate from this state had voted to raise or suspend the debt ceiling.

The vote was also noteworthy for Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, who were part of the 63-36 majority that sent the bill to President Joe Biden. Bleeding Heartland’s review of 45 years of Congressional records showed Grassley had backed a debt ceiling bill under a Democratic president only once, and Ernst had never done so.


A quick reminder of what’s in the deal President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy negotiated:

  • The debt ceiling will be suspended until January 2025.
  • Spending on most domestic programs will “fall by $1 billion from this year to next and rise by 1 percent in 2025.”
  • The deal rescinds $1.4 billion of the $80 billion allocated to the Internal Revenue Service in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, and expresses a plan to reduce another $20 billion of those funds.
  • Federal government spending on the military and veterans benefits will increase.
  • There will be more work requirements for recipients of food assistance (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) and another welfare program (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF). However, some groups will be exempt from the work requirements.
  • The bill guarantees permits for a natural gas pipeline running from West Virginia to Virginia (a priority for Democratic Senator Joe Manchin).
  • Americans whose student loan repayments were paused during the pandemic will need to start making regular payments again.

Grassley’s office did not release a statement following the vote, nor did the senator mention it on his social media feeds. But in an interview on Fox News, Grassley explained why he planned to support the deal. He received a clear message from constituent meetings held in thirteen different counties last week: “Iowans are fed up with partisanship in Washington. They’re fed up with talk about possible default of debt, because we’ve never done that, and they want the government to run in a businesslike way [….] So we can’t shut down the government.”

Grassley added that the bill had “very good” and “not so good” parts, but suggested that was inevitable, since Republicans control only one of the three parts of government in Washington. No one will be 100 percent satisfied with a compromise, he told the Fox hosts, but “just think how bad it would have been if the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. We’d be spending trillions more than what we’re going to be spending over the next two years with this agreement.”

Similarly, Ernst did not acknowledge her vote for the debt limit deal on her social media. (Instead, she filled her Twitter and Facebook feeds with messages decrying other wasteful spending.) But in a statement provided to news media on June 1, the senator explained her vote.

Iowans are sick and tired of Washington’s reckless spending that has led to over $31 trillion in debt. Unfortunately, due to the Democrat majority in the Senate and a Democrat in the White House, this bill is not a perfect solution, but I agree with our entire Iowa delegation that it forces Washington to spend less than the year before, reclaims billions from unspent COVID funds, cuts red tape to increase domestic energy production, and adds necessary work requirements for welfare.

Ernst’s staff did not respond to a follow-up inquiry about how much Iowa stood to lose in unspent COVID-19 relief funds under the bill.

I wondered how unusual it was for both of Iowa’s senators to vote for a debt ceiling bill. Using this Congressional Research Service report, as well as roll call votes and publications archived at, I examined how Ernst and Grassley had approached similar votes. A full list can be found at the end of this post.


Generally speaking, senators are more likely to support raising the debt ceiling by a certain dollar amount, or suspending the limit for a certain period of time, when the president belongs to their political party. The effect is particularly pronounced for Republican senators, according to Aaron Blake’s analysis for the Washington Post. But it also holds true for many Democrats; Iowa’s former Senator Tom Harkin was more likely to vote for a debt ceiling bill under Democratic presidents.

Over the past 30 years, Grassley has been far more sympathetic to raising the borrowing limit when a Republican occupies the White House. But earlier in his political career, he usually voted against debt limit bills even under GOP presidents.

During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Grassley represented part of northeast Iowa in Congress. He voted against every debt limit bill that came before the Democratic-controlled House from 1977 through 1980.

Surprisingly, Grassley continued to oppose most debt limit bills as a U.S. senator in the 1980s, even though Ronald Reagan was president and Republicans controlled the upper chamber through 1986. It’s easy to forget now, but Grassley was not always on good terms with the Reagan administration.

Given twelve opportunities during the Reagan presidency to raise the debt ceiling through a roll call vote (that is, not by voice vote or unanimous consent), Grassley voted yes only twice. One of those times happened in 1986, when Congress included debt ceiling provisions in a bill with other federal budget reforms, commonly known as Gramm-Rudman.

Grassley also voted no in the one roll call vote on a debt ceiling bill during George H.W. Bush’s presidency.

The Senate held only two roll calls on a debt ceiling hike when Bill Clinton was president. Grassley opposed the bill from 1993, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. But he was part of the large majority supporting the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, which Clinton negotiated with a GOP-controlled Congress.

The federal government ran small deficits or surpluses in the late 1990s, so the debt limit was not increased for nearly five years.

Grassley flipped the script under President George W. Bush. Large tax cuts approved in 2001 and the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq led to more frequent need to raise the debt ceiling. Most Republicans supported those, and Iowa’s senior senator was no exception. He voted for debt ceiling bills in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008. The last one was attached to the bank bailout bill Congress rushed through to address the financial crisis of October 2008.

Here’s an excerpt from a speech Grassley, then chair of the Senate Finance Committee, delivered on the Senate floor in November 2004.

I support this increase because it is necessary to preserve the full faith and credit of the U.S. Government. Without an increase in the debt limit, our Government will face a choice between breaking the law by exceeding the statutory debt limit, or breaking faith with the public by de faulting on our debt. Neither choice is acceptable. […]

We will hear a lot of criticism that President Bush’s tax cuts are responsible for our rising public debt. But the facts show otherwise.

When President Bush took office in 2001, the Federal debt limit was $5.95 trillion. The debt limit was increased to $6.4 trillion in 2002 and to $7.384 trillion in 2003.

Assuming we increase the debt limit again today, it will be $8.184 trillion. Thus, the Federal debt limit will have increased $2.234 trillion since President Bush took office in 2001.

However, the tax cuts that have been enacted since 2001 total less than $700 billion through the end of the most recent fiscal year, and that includes the interest cost as well. Thus, the President’s tax cuts account for less than 30 percent of the increase in the Federal debt limit. The rest of the increase in public debt is due to the recession, the war in Iraq, and homeland security.

Grassley struck similar notes in March 2006. If this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve heard the same talking points in recent months from Biden and other Democratic politicians.

Raising the debt limit is necessary to preserve the full faith and credit of the U.S. Government. We cannot as a Congress pass spending bills and tax bills and then refuse to pay our bills.

Refusing to raise the debt limit is like refusing to pay your credit card bill—after you’ve used your credit card. The time to control the deficits and debt is when we are voting on the spending bills and the tax bills that create it.

Raising the debt limit is about meeting the obligations we have already incurred. We must meet our obligations. Vote for this bill.

Here’s Grassley as ranking member on Senate Finance ahead of a September 2007 vote: “Raising the debt limit is about meeting the obligations we have already incurred, it is that simple. We must meet our obligations. So I urge my colleagues to support this increase.”

Grassley opposed just one debt ceiling bill while the younger Bush was president. That legislation, from the summer of 2008, included other energy and tax provisions drafted by a Democratic-controlled Congress.

Iowa’s senior senator did a U-turn during Barack Obama’s presidency, voting against debt ceiling legislation at all six opportunities. Those included stand-alone bills as well as larger measures, like the February 2009 economic stimulus package.

Even after Republicans won back the House and negotiated the Budget Control Act (sometimes known as the “sequester” bill) with Obama in August 2011, Grassley voted against the measure. His statement on that vote explained,

I voted against the plan because it delays meaningful spending reductions, fails to address entitlement spending in a way that will save the programs for future generations of retirees, and leaves open the possibility of tax increases. […] The federal debt will continue to climb another $7 trillion under this deal, and the promise of cuts down the road, rather than making those decisions now, is more of the same from Washington. […]

During the last five years, debt-limit increases have averaged $800 billion for six months, so this $2.4 trillion increase is an extraordinary expansion of government debt, just the opposite of what we ought to be doing. I wish this plan was proportional to the size of the problems we face.

Grassley also voted against the two debt ceiling suspensions Congress approved in 2013. In a Senate floor speech delivered early that year, he quoted extensively from Obama’s case against raising the debt limit in 2006 (while Bush was president). “It’s time for the President to acknowledge that we have a spending problem,” Grassley said. “It’s time to stop shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren.”

A standoff between Obama and the GOP-controlled House led to a partial federal government shutdown in October 2013 and brought the U.S. very close to default. The deal that ended the shutdown and suspended the debt ceiling passed by 81 votes to 18, but Grassley was among the dissenters. Here’s the statement he released at that time:

There’s been a lot of talk about the negative impact of not raising the debt limit, but there’s too little focus on the negative consequences of ignoring the $17 trillion debt. Government spending has exploded since 2008, increasing the national debt by $6 trillion. Obamacare is a drag on the economy and hurting workers’ ability to find full-time jobs. Yet the President refuses to lead for fiscal responsibility, both short and long term, even with a government shutdown. This agreement raises the debt limit with no action on the debt. It’s a missed opportunity for forcing action to limit government and increase economic opportunities. America needs the President to roll up his sleeves and work with members of Congress to address the long-term fiscal problems of our country. Our grandkids depend on it.

Following Harkin’s retirement, Ernst entered the picture in 2015. She and Grassley both opposed an October 2015 bill, which suspended the borrowing limit and contained various budget, tax, and trade provisions. Ernst did not release a statement, but Grassley said in part:

Government shutdowns don’t save money. They cost money, and they’re best avoided. Defaulting on the nation’s debts is also something to avoid. But this budget deal lifts the debt ceiling to enable new borrowing while missing opportunities to address long-term runaway spending and deficit problems. This bill will raise our already $18.1 trillion debt ceiling by hundreds of billions of dollars, without a single dollar of spending reduction in exchange. It increases spending by $112 billion over the next two years, and pays for it with bad policy such as a $3 billion cut to crop insurance and raiding the crime victims fund and gimmicks such as oil sales and spectrum sales. It undoes the bipartisan promise Congress made in 2011 to rein in runaway spending.


Congress raised the debt ceiling three times while Donald Trump was in the White House. A September 2017 bill passed with overwhelming support (80 votes to 17), because it combined a debt limit suspension with supplemental appropriations for disaster relief. But both of Iowa’s senators voted no. In a written statement, Ernst said she supported aid for Hurricane Harvey victims but not the debt limit provision. Grassley’s office did not release a statement, but the senator told one local reporter he voted no because he opposed raising the debt ceiling without some limit on federal government spending.

Another debt ceiling bill cleared the Senate by 71 votes to 28 in February 2018. This time, Ernst voted yes and Grassley no. I could not find any public statements explaining either senator’s thought process. Ernst and Grassley have rarely landed on opposite sides of a high-profile vote.

The Senate approved a debt ceiling suspension as part of a broader federal budget deal in August 2019. Grassley and Ernst were both part of the 67 to 28 majority. Again, I could not find any public statements about the vote.

The next two debt ceiling increases occurred while Biden was president, and they involved increases by dollar amounts, rather than suspensions for a fixed period. Grassley and Ernst voted against the legislation that came before the Senate in October and December 2021. Although neither senator published a news release about those votes, Grassley told reporters in September 2021 that Democrats shouldn’t expect any GOP help for raising the debt ceiling. “We’ve said pretty plainly for months we will not abet the tax and spending spree, and that we’re going to vote against the raise of the debt ceiling.”

Why the about-face this week? As Grassley mentioned above, the latest deal didn’t come out of a Democratic-controlled House, and included some real concessions from Biden. It’s also worth noting that Ernst is the fourth-ranking member of Senate GOP leadership, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell clearly did not want any part of a default.

Another possibility: Iowa’s senators wanted to give cover to their counterparts in the House. U.S. Representatives Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA-01), Ashley Hinson (IA-02), Zach Nunn (IA-03), and Randy Feenstra (IA-04) all voted for the debt ceiling deal; Bleeding Heartland published their official statements here.

Appendix: How Iowa’s U.S. senators voted on debt ceiling increases (listed in this Congressional Research Service report or referenced here) from 1977 to the present. Grassley was sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives in 1975, but I was unable to find dates and roll calls for debt limit increases prior to 1977.

Under President Jimmy Carter:

September 1977: House vote was 213 to 202; Grassley voted no.

October 1977: House vote was 223 to 194; Grassley voted no.

March 1978: House vote was 233 to 172; Grassley voted no.

July 1978: House vote was 205 to 202; Grassley voted no.

April 1979: House vote was 209 to 165; Grassley voted no.

September 1979: House vote was 219 to 198; Grassley voted no.

May 1980: House approved by voice vote (no roll call)

June 1980: House vote was 335 to 34; Grassley was recorded as not voting. (Many members of Congress were absent that day.)

June 1980: House was deemed to have approved a debt limit increase by passing a spending bill. Grassley had voted no on the budget.

Under President Ronald Reagan:

February 1981: Senate vote was 73 to 18; contemporaneous news coverage indicates that only three Senate Republicans (not including Grassley) voted against a $50 billion increase.

May 1981: Senate raised debt ceiling by voice vote (no roll call)

September 1981: Senate vote was 64 to 34 (most Senate Republicans voted yes); Grassley voted no.

June 1982: Senate vote was 49 to 41; Grassley voted no.

September 1982: Senate vote was 50 to 41; Grassley voted no. The federal debt limit was codified with this Congressional action.

May 1983: Senate voted 51 to 41; Grassley voted no.

November 1983, May 1984, June 1984: Senate passed debt limit increases by voice vote

October 1984: After a snag in legislative proceedings, the Senate approved a debt limit increase by an unusual 37 to 30 vote (many senators had already returned to their home states). The roll call shows Grassley not voting, but the Congressional record indicates that if present, he would have voted no.

November 1985: Senate passed by voice vote

December 1985: By 61 votes to 31, the Senate approved a debt limit increase as part of a bill that included federal budget reforms (commonly known as Gramm-Rudman). Grassley voted yes.

August 1986: With many senators already out of town for the summer recess, the Senate approved a debt limit increase by 36 votes to 35. Grassley voted no.

October 1986: The Senate passed by 61 votes to 25; Grassley voted no.

May 1987: Senate passed by 58 votes to 36; Grassley voted no.

July 1987: The Senate approved by voice vote

August 1987: Senate passed by 51 votes to 39; Grassley voted no.

September 1987: Senate vote was 64 to 34; Grassley voted yes.

Under President George H.W. Bush:

August 1989, November 1989, August 1990, September 1990, October 1990: Senate passed debt limit increases by voice vote or unanimous consent

October 1990: Senate vote was 54 to 45; Grassley voted no.

Under President Bill Clinton:

April 1993: Senate raised debt limit by unanimous consent

August 1993: Senate vote was 51 to 50; Grassley voted no.

February 1996, March 1996: Senate approved increases by voice vote or unanimous consent.

July 1997: Senate vote was 85 to 15; Grassley voted yes.

Under President George W. Bush:

June 2002: Senate vote was 68 to 29; Grassley voted yes.

May 2003: Senate vote was 53 to 44; Grassley voted yes.

November 2004 (after the election): Senate vote was 52 to 44; Grassley voted yes.

March 2006: Senate vote was 52 to 48; Grassley voted yes.

September 2007: Senate vote was 53 to 42; Grassley voted yes.

July 2008: Senate vote was 72 to 13 (debt limit increase attached to broader energy and tax bill): Grassley voted no.

October 2008: Senate vote was 74 to 24 (combined with larger financial system bailout): Grassley voted yes.

Under President Barack Obama:

February 2009: Senate vote was 60 to 38 (combined with larger stimulus package): Grassley voted no.

December 2009: Senate vote was 60 to 39: Grassley voted no.

January 2010: Senate vote was 60 to 39; Grassley voted no.

August 2011: Senate voted 74 to 26 for the Budget Control Act; Grassley voted no.

After this point, debt limit increases were “suspensions,” rather than dollar amounts.

January 2013: Senate vote was 64 to 34; Grassley voted no.

October 2013: Senate vote to end a government shutdown and raise debt limit was 81 to 18; Grassley voted no.

February 2014: Senate vote was 55 to 43; Grassley voted no.

October 2015: Senate vote was 64 to 35, combined with other tax and trade provisions; Grassley and Ernst voted no.

Under President Donald Trump:

September 2017: Senate vote was 80 to 17 (combined with a supplemental appropriations for disaster relief bill): Grassley and Ernst voted no.

February 2018: Senate vote was 71 to 28; Ernst voted yes and Grassley no.

August 2019: Senate vote was 67 to 28, combined with a broader federal budget deal; Grassley and Ernst voted yes.

Under President Joe Biden:

October 2021: Senate voted 50 to 48; Grassley and Ernst voted no.

December 2021: Senate voted 50 to 49; Grassley and Ernst voted no.

Top photo of U.S. Capitol reflected in puddle by Jonathan O’Reilly, available via Shutterstock.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin