After debt ceiling concession, McConnell faces new doubts ahead of next fight
WASHINGTON — For weeks Mitch McConnell repeatedly vowed Democrats would get no Republican help lifting the nation’s debt limit.
On Thursday night, he delivered eleven votes to do just that.
McConnell’s decision to drop his opposition was an indisputable retreat for the Senate Minority Leader, who now faces a double-edged challenge when this year’s debt ceiling drama returns for a sequel next month.
Democrats are more likely to doubt his threats and Republicans are less likely to trust his strategy.
“Chuck Schumer won this game of chicken,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told reporters before joining the majority of Republicans to vote against the McConnell agreement on the Senate floor.
McConnell cobbled together 11 Republicans who joined all Democrats to advance the debt limit hike, 61-38. Sixty votes were needed and McConnell stood in the well and chatted with his top lieutenants as the final tally remained uncertain.
Overcoming that procedural hurdle allowed Democrats to formally pass the short-term debt ceiling extension to Dec. 3 with just 50 votes.
“Today’s vote is proof positive that the debt limit can be addressed without going through the reconciliation process, as Democrats have been saying for months,” said Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, hinting at the contours of the next showdown.
Earlier in the day, McConnell attempted to frame his acquiescence as a result of Democratic incompetence, even though he could have consented to the same outcome much earlier.
“The majority didn’t have a plan to prevent default. So we stepped forward,” McConnell said, with his press aides attempting to brand the resolution as the “McConnell Pathway.”
McConnell, facing consternation within his own caucus about folding to Schumer, will now look to fight another day after facing cracks in GOP unity.
Nearly everyone — from business leaders to Capitol Hill veterans — knew the nation’s borrowing limit would get raised ahead of the drop-dead date of Oct. 18. All that was left to wonder was how.
It’s like watching a play and knowing the ending. The lure was figuring out just how much drama there would be.
All week, Washington was consumed by the procedural machinations Democrats could employ to permit the federal government to pay its debts and avoid squandering its credit rating. Schumer staunchly refused to choose reconciliation, a partisan and cumbersome process that would’ve likely taken weeks.
But only when the potential elimination of the filibuster was floated did McConnell recalculate his iron-clad position. Disposing of the need for 60 votes on the debt might become a slippery slope for other Democratic Party desires.
Instead, McConnell offered Democrats a temporary lifeline through early December, setting up a repeat of this week’s fight in November that will feature many of the same arguments.
“I truly think the threat of losing the filibuster was his driving light,” said Scott Reed, a veteran GOP strategist. “Remember Mitch always plays the long game.”
McConnell’s long game is well-established: Hammer Democrats for superfluous spending financed by taxing at a time when prices are already rising on everything from beef to lumber to gas. Throw up any possible roadblocks to slow their pursuit and pit Democrats against each other when there’s any signs of cracks in the coalition.
It’s this short-game that was more confounding to observers.
McConnell forced Democrats to spend a few more days consumed with the debt ceiling, rather than their multi-trillion spending package or voting rights bill.
But ultimately he conceded to Schumer’s demand that the nation’s debt is the responsibility of both parties, not just the one currently in power.
To anyone on the outside even attempting to follow such convoluted back-and-forths on such an obtuse issue as debt, it’s likely a political wash.
“This fight is such inside baseball, average Americans have no idea what’s happening,” said Frank Clemente, the executive director of Americans for Tax Fairness, which advocates for higher corporate taxes to pay for social investments. “I suppose it may have had some benefit with the Republican base, but I can think of 10 substantive issues that have more resonance with them. All for nought.”
Democrats took the opportunity to crow. As the party weighed internally how much backlash it would incur as the party in power dangerously closing in on default, one of President Joe Biden’s top political advisers took a countervailing lesson from the outcome.
“At the end of the day, when Republicans mess with the debt ceiling or shut down the government they always pay for it politically,” said John Anzalone, one of the president’s pollsters. “How many times have we seen this movie? Going all the way back to the Clinton presidency. It never goes well for them.”
Asked about the saliency of the argument that Democrats would shoulder most of the blame for the economic fallout from an unprecedented default, Anzalone replied, “Well, I just frigging argued the opposite so it doesn’t carry any saliency with me.”
Mary Kay Henry, the president of the Service Employees International Union and one of the most influential labor voices inside the White House, said her members were largely only invested in the debt ceiling as it connected to other issues
“It impacts timing on Build Back Better and infrastructure and voting rights,” she said. “[McConnell] is obstructing progress on all three fronts. The debt ceiling is just the most recent opportunity he has...I think what they’re trying to sabotage is a Democratic majority in the House and Senate.”
McConnell clearly wants to earn any political advantage that will help him retake the majority next year. It’s just wholly unclear if this week’s delay tactic aided that zero-sum goal, especially now that he’s emboldened Democrats and upset the more hardline elements of the GOP, ever eager to pounce on the slightest perceived sign of weakness.
McConnell has already intimated this two-month deal gives Democrats one more shot to use the reconciliation process to deal with a longer-term debt ceiling hike. “Now there will be no question,” McConnell said Thursday, “They’ll have plenty of time.”
Since Schumer has stated that’s off the table, the December deadline will again force one of them to blink.
Keep all of this in mind once the Thanksgiving holiday approaches and the same arguments are dusted off and re-released, even as the preferred outcome is predetermined.
The debt ceiling is a tradition only Washington could love.