This has to be the single dumbest congressional standoff I’ve covered in 15 years.
The substantive stakes are unimaginably high while the procedural stakes are unimaginably low. Schumer and his caucus could have taken care of this weeks ago by raising the debt ceiling through reconciliation, which, yes, would have required them to take ownership of an ugly number in the $30 trillion range. But guess what: Americans already know the national debt is an ugly number. And they also know that Trump and the GOP added considerably to it. And they also also know that Biden and the Democrats are about to make that ugly number much, much uglier with their infrastructure package.
Which is the real political liability for Democrats next year. Not the debt-ceiling hike, which ultimately no one will remember or care about, but the fact that they’re willing to burn through trillions more in spending after America just got done with a mind-boggling degree of federal largesse in the form of COVID relief. Whatever happens with the debt ceiling won’t spare them from that reckoning.
On the other hand, Republicans are playing chicken with a cataclysmic default for no better reason than to gain a weak talking point for an attack ad next fall. There are no meaningful GOP demands as a condition of raising the debt ceiling, like Democrats agreeing to reform entitlements or to pass a balanced-budget amendment. The goal here is nothing grander than being able to say, “They raised the debt ceiling to $30 trillion!”, knowing full well that Republicans would have raised it to that same amount in the name of averting a default if they were in charge of Congress now.
The deal between Schumer and McConnell called for having the two parties grant unanimous consent to suspend the cloture rules, which would bypass a filibuster and allow Democrats to pass the short-term debt-ceiling bill with 50 votes plus Kamala Harris’s tiebreaker. Easy peasy. Then we’d all take a breath and get ready to have precisely this same fight in December, another thing that makes the stakes here ultra-low. No one’s giving up anything long-term, just kicking the can to later this year.
But it looks like McConnell can’t get unanimous consent. Reportedly Ted Cruz won’t agree to suspend the rules because he thinks that refusing will impress populist voters the next time he runs in and loses a Republican presidential primary. Which means Democrats will have to invoke cloture here with 60 votes. Which in turn means they need 10 Republicans to vote yes on the cloture motion. And McConnell’s apparently having trouble getting that too.
Does Cocaine Mitch still rule his caucus with an iron fist? Doesn’t seem like it tonight. Seems more like … disarray:
“As you might expect, this is not an easy one to whip,” Thune said. “In the end we will be there, but it will be a painful birthing process.”
“Our guys hate debt limit votes among other votes, but especially debt limit votes,” Thune said.
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) October 7, 2021
Senate Republicans have met twice today already to try to find those 10 votes. It hasn’t gone well:
Lindsey Graham bashes McConnell plans on debt ceiling — as GOP leaders struggle to get 10 votes to break a filibuster. “Why the hell would I make it easier for them to raise the debt ceiling through regular order? We had a strategy and we abandoned it.”
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) October 7, 2021
Cruz on McConnell’s debt ceiling proposal: “I believe it was a mistake to offer this deal. I don’t think it was a good deal”
— Burgess Everett (@burgessev) October 7, 2021
Emerging from 90-minute meeting, GOP senators are saying it’s unclear if there will be 10 senators to break a filibuster on the short-term debt ceiling hike.
“It’s uncertain,” Braun said, noting that there was a lot of members making the case that Dems “ultimately will do it.”
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) October 7, 2021
What does the GOP gain by tanking the short-term deal now instead of agreeing to it and having this fight again in December? Well, nothing:
In the lunch, according to senators who attended, McConnell told his caucus members that passing the increase was important to prevent a default and that the deal they struck for a short-term extension would require Democrats to pass a long-term extension on their own in December using budget reconciliation.
The deal also requires Democrats to vote for a specific value of the debt ceiling, not just a suspension, a key demand of Republicans, McConnell told his members.
As he left the meeting, McConnell said, “I certainly hope not,” when asked by a reporter if the Senate would likely be in session Saturday to process the bill.
The GOP doesn’t give up anything by taking McConnell’s deal. They’re merely postponing the staredown with Schumer for two months for prudential reasons, because we’re 10 days out from defaulting and that’s frankly too close for comfort. And yet, despite the risk, he’s still apparently having trouble finding 10 votes to kick the can.
The best I can do to come up with a reason more sophisticated than some moronic “WE MUST SHOW WE WILL FIGHT” sloganeering is that forcing Democrats to deal with the debt ceiling long-term now will slow down their work on the infrastructure reconciliation bill. But that comes with risk: Having the GOP renege on its deal and push the parties back towards a default for no substantive reason whatsoever may unite fractious Democrats. Right now the politician whom progressives most loathe in the world is Kyrsten Sinema, one of their own. If Cruz and the Senate GOP tank the debt-ceiling punt and try to play chicken with default, Dems will rally against the right instead. That may help bring them together on infrastructure.
Worse, because McConnell already trumpeted this deal publicly, to have Republicans renege now would give Democrats a way to shift blame for any consequences of default to the GOP. To this point the public has held Democrats mainly responsible for the debt-ceiling brinksmanship since they are, after all, in charge of the government. But if Republicans block a deal that seemed like it would (temporarily) end the crisis, Schumer could accuse them of being so unreasonable that even Mitch McConnell thinks Democrats have the better position here.
And remember, McConnell doesn’t need 10 Republicans to vote yes on hiking the debt ceiling. All he’s asking for are 10 votes for cloture. The actual debt-ceiling bill will pass exclusively with Democratic votes.
Which means Senate Republicans are so fearful of being demagogued by Trump and/or their own base for not “fighting” here, even though fighting would be unnecessary at best and could crash the g-ddamned economy at worst, that they’re struggling to find just 10 votes for a purely procedural motion.
Although, as I write this at 6:30 ET, maybe they’ve found them at last:
BREAKING: Senate GOP Whip @SenJohnThune says debt limit bill will pass tonight. GOP will provide at least 10 votes to end filibuster
— Erik Wasson (@elwasson) October 7, 2021
McConnell must have called in some favors, knowing how humiliated he’d be if his own caucus wouldn’t honor a deal he struck. My condolences to the 10 Republicans who’ll end up walking the plank on this, knowing they’ll be attacked in a witless Trump statement tomorrow. Then everyone will forget all about this four minutes from now as we move on to the next “we must fight!” litmus test.
Update: Here’s Cruz cutting his 2024 campaign commercial this evening.
Ted Cruz: Republicans blinked pic.twitter.com/Pn5OutLEYw
— Acyn (@Acyn) October 7, 2021