Biden: Changing the filibuster rules to let Dems raise the debt ceiling is "a real possibility"

Well … yes. Everything is “a real possibility” when it comes to avoiding a default. Even Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema can’t conceivably value the integrity of the filibuster more than they do averting a worldwide economic cataclysm.

The way forward here seems obvious. Schumer should start the process to raise the debt ceiling via reconciliation even though it would mean caving to McConnell. Manchin seems to prefer going that route so Schumer has little choice but to prefer it as well. If it turns out that reconciliation is taking too long to avert a default, Democrats have two emergency options. They can call another floor vote on a standalone bill to raise the ceiling and ask the GOP to provide 10 votes for cloture in the name of avoiding catastrophe. And if Republicans still won’t do it, then they can ask Manchin and Sinema to change the rules of the filibuster so that votes on the debt ceiling may pass by simple majority.

It’s a game of chicken but there’s no scenario realistically in which the cars collide here. It’s purely a question of whether Republicans are willing to jerk the wheel before Manchinema is.

Biden confirmed last night what I suspected yesterday, that tweaking the filibuster is on the table:

“Oh, I think that’s a real possibility,” Mr. Biden said when asked if Democrats were considering the last-resort route, which would involve making an exception to allow for a debt ceiling bill to pass with a simple majority instead of the usual 60 votes needed.

Senate Democrats discussed carving out the exception at their weekly lunch on Tuesday. No conclusions were reached, but notably, according to participants, the two strongest opponents of filibuster changes, Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, did not speak up in protest. They also did not speak up in support.

“[T]he idea appears more popular within the caucus than going through the strenuous motions of reconciliation,” Politico reported about yesterday’s Senate Dem lunch. Which is nice, but it doesn’t matter which idea is more popular “within the caucus.” All that matters is whether Manchin and Sinema are willing to spare Schumer from having to at least try to raise the ceiling via reconciliation. I’m guessing they aren’t, partly for self-interested reasons: “Just as eliminating the filibuster for court nominees eventually led to doing so for Supreme Court nominees, an exception for the debt ceiling would inevitably trigger other demands.”

Right. Once Manchin and Sinema prove that they’re willing to alter the filibuster for one type of legislation, they’d be besieged by progressives demanding to know why they shouldn’t alter it for other types. Sure the debt ceiling is important, but is it more important than immigration reform? Gun control? Voting rights? What will the two say in reply?

On the other hand, if they force Schumer to raise the ceiling via reconciliation, it’ll require Dems to put a garish dollar amount on what the new ceiling should be. Republicans will run on that number in the midterms. I think Dems’ fear of that is overblown since they’re already engaged in an unholy spending spree and will be attacked for fiscal madness no matter what, but apparently it’s a concern.

Republicans face risk here too. If the Senate sleepwalks into an accidental default by failing to act before Treasury hits the ceiling, Democrats will probably get most of the blame from voters. They’re in control of government, after all. But the GOP is obstructing a debt-ceiling hike in this case for no real purpose except to obstruct, with McConnell having acknowledged repeatedly that it’s crucial that the ceiling be raised. “Why did they block a bill that would have kept the economy from tanking which they admitted had to pass?” voters will wonder. For that reason, Senate Republicans are signaling to Schumer that they won’t drag out the reconciliation process to raise the ceiling. They’re not flirting with a default, they just want Democrats to take exclusive ownership of the new debt limit:

“When it comes to whether a consent vote would be a tool to do what they could do through reconciliation anyway, a more laborious process, I’d have to give that some thought. Because then it would cut to the chase,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), a die-hard fiscal conservative…

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who’s leading the charge to filibuster any debt bill, was noncommittal when asked if he’d support smoothing the party-line path for Democrats to lift the borrowing limit. “It would depend on the circumstance,” he said…

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said that if Democrats fold and go the reconciliation route, Republicans shouldn’t make it “an elongated exercise.” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a Budget Committee member, agreed that he’s “not interested in throwing up a bunch of roadblocks.” And Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said that once Democrats choose reconciliation, “I don’t see any need to prolong this. I think the important thing is, they take the vote.”

Even Cruz and Hawley aren’t promising to delay reconciliation to the bitter end so Schumer can probably get it done with time to spare before the October 18 deadline if he starts tonight. It’s a matter of him being willing to blink in his weeks-long staredown with McConnell over whether reconciliation should be used in this case or not. “There’s no strategy that we know of,” said one nervous House Democratic aide to Politico of Schumer. “It seems like he’s going to try to create a crisis that either McConnell, or Manchin and Sinema, crack.” What could go wrong?

Here’s Biden confirming last night that the rules of the filibuster might need to be changed this time, and also admitting that he’d sign a reconciliation bill on infrastructure even if it includes the Hyde Amendment. His new best friends in the House progressive caucus won’t be happy to hear that.