McConnell warns Biden: Because of Schumer's tantrum, we won't help raise the debt ceiling in December

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

A leftover from Friday night. Read all of McConnell’s letter to the president, as it’s short and enjoyably bitchy. The key bit:

“Last night, in a bizarre spectacle, Senator Schumer exploded in a rant that was so partisan, angry, and corrosive that even Democratic Senators were visibly embarrassed by him and for him. This tantrum encapsulated and escalated a pattern of angry incompetence from Senator Schumer,” McConnell wrote.

McConnell warned that Schumer’s “childish behavior” had “alienated” GOP senators who helped advance the short-term debt increase and “poisoned the well even further.” They are likely the same GOP senators Schumer would need to lean on to raise the debt ceiling outside of reconciliation later this year.

“I am writing to make it clear that in light of Senator Schumer’s hysterics and my grave concerns about the ways that another vast, reckless, partisan spending bill would hurt Americans and help China, I will not be a party to any future effort to mitigate the consequences of Democratic mismanagement,” he added.

He doesn’t actually care about Schumer’s rant, of course. He would have refused to participate in December’s debt-ceiling hike no matter what. He’s being pugnacious here because it’s a way to lower the heat he’s taken from the right, including members of his caucus like Ted Cruz, for having agreed to a short-term deal. The cardinal virtue for post-Trump Republicans is to fight, fight, fight, whether what you’re fighting for is wise or not, and McConnell didn’t display that virtue when he compromised with Schumer. By lashing him in his letter and vowing not to compromise again, he’s back on Team Red.

Democrats are beginning to wonder: Should we use our fleeting control of the federal government to get rid of the debt ceiling altogether? Janet Yellen likes the idea, having testified last week before the House Financial Services Committee that issuing debt should be a simple Treasury function to balance the books when expenditures exceed revenue. Pelosi likes it too. Two members of her caucus, Brendan Boyle and John Yarmuth, have introduced a bill that would delegate Congress’s authority over the debt ceiling to the Treasury secretary, which Pelosi called an “excellent idea.”

Why do that instead of repealing it, though? After all, the debt ceiling has utterly failed to serve the purpose for which it was intended:

In July 2015, the Government Accountability Office sent Congress a lengthy report outlining all the reasons the debt law should be revised. Its most important finding was that the laws fails its central mission of prompting debate about how to reduce debt.

“This approach to raising the debt limit does not facilitate timely debate over specific tax or spending proposals and their effect on debt, and can limit the range of options Congress has to effect an immediate change on the trajectory of federal debt,” the GAO authors wrote six years ago…

If such a brief lift in the debt ceiling was that painful, it demonstrates that it is just a matter of time before Congress bungles its way into rupturing the debt limit. Some veteran Republicans privately fear such a scenario should Republicans win back the House, where strident conservatives have the most control and would likely oppose a future debt ceiling lift.

That’s what Democrats should be thinking about, not whether they might need to raise the ceiling in December via reconciliation, on a party-line vote. The day is coming when Republicans will be back in charge of one or both houses of Congress and the Trumpist imperative to fight, fight, fight will make them think twice about hiking the debt limit, at least so long as there’s a Democrat in the White House who’ll suffer the consequences if they refuse. McConnell would be able to resist pressure from Republican voters not to raise the ceiling because his power base within the party exists separately from Trump’s. But Kevin McCarthy’s doesn’t. If McCarthy refused to “fight” by running headlong into a default, Trumpists might demand a Speaker who will.

We’re in grave danger if the only thing standing between America and economic catastrophe is the strength of Kevin McCarthy’s spine.

Boyle’s plan to keep the debt ceiling intact but to punt it over to Treasury would be better than having our dysfunctional Congress continue to flirt with disaster, but that may not be foolproof either. A Republican president with a Republican Treasury secretary probably wouldn’t be pressured by the base not to raise the debt ceiling since righties tend to care about spending only when Democrats are in charge. But I wouldn’t rule it out as a litmus test for a GOP administration whose populist bona fides somehow came into question. If we ended up with President Nikki Haley and she said or did something to get crosswise with MAGA, populists might test her by demanding that she instruct her Treasury secretary not to raise the ceiling. The pretext for that demand would be that spending is out of control but in reality it would be a gut check of Haley’s willingness to fight even at the cost of inviting a calamity.

She’d raise it in the end, of course. And realistically, the people calling on her not to do so wouldn’t expect her to do otherwise. They’d just be looking for a reason to be mad at her and would have manufactured one via the debt ceiling.

So why don’t Dems repeal it now, while they have the chance? The prospect of default has Washington so spooked that Yellen’s being asked whether she might just declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional if Congress refused to raise it:

For all the energy Democrats have spent arguing that Republicans have grown dangerously irresponsible under Trump’s influence and are unfit to govern, they don’t act like they believe it. Instead of trying to reform the Electoral Count Act, which is the true danger if Trump tries again to overturn the election in 2024, they’ve spent months whining about a go-nowhere bill like H.R. 1. Instead of repealing the debt ceiling for fear of a future Republican House leading the country to default, they’re obsessing over having to raise the limit in December via reconciliation and being attacked as big spenders in Republican ads next fall because of it. They’re not thinking big-picture.

There’s a procedural answer to my question, though: They’re not repealing the debt ceiling because they simply lack the ability to do it. The ceiling can be raised via reconciliation but one former Senate parliamentarian believes that it can’t be completely abolished that way. That would have to be done through regular order, which means they’d need 60 votes for cloture. The most Democrats could do to solve the problem for years to come with 50 would be to raise the ceiling to some outlandishly astronomical number that the national debt will never approach, but they’re not going to do that, obviously. If they’re worried about raising the ceiling to $30 trillion in reconciliation because of the attack ads that will result, imagine the ads if they raised it to $1 quadrillion instead.

Realistically, the only way to repeal the ceiling (or to pass Boyle’s variation on repeal) would be for Senate Dems to make an exception to the filibuster in order to do so. And as Joe Manchin has said 8,000 times already, he’s not going to do that. Watch him say it for the 8,001st time to CNN reporter Manu Raju a few night ago. The debt ceiling isn’t going anywhere, which means the real drama about default will come in 2023 when Republicans are back in charge.