Democrats: Plan B on debt ceiling is ... blaming GOP when Plan A fails

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Well, why not? Isn’t that the traditional Plan B for debt-ceiling fights? It certainly served Republicans well enough in 2018, but we’ll get back to that in a moment.

This is different than the Plan B for the next budget bill about which Jazz wrote, but only in specifics. Democrats also find themselves in a jam on the debt ceiling, in part because they’ve parked almost $5 trillion in new spending on the agenda and want a blank check that would allow even more spending to come. Small wonder, then, that Republicans aren’t rushing to cover the spending that’s already taking place. Democrats don’t want a reconciliation “off ramp,” Politico reports, but the alternative might just be a crash through the guardrails and into the abyss:

GOP leaders have insisted that Democrats lift the cap on government borrowing without Republican votes, by using the same budgetary move that’s helping them take up a mammoth social spending plan as soon as this week. But that’s an untested play, one that could put the whole package — which is already wobbling amid intraparty disputes — at risk.

It’s a lengthy maneuver, too: Experts and congressional aides estimate that adding the debt limit to Democrats’ party-line spending bill could take about two weeks, requiring revisions to the budget measure that the party deployed to steer it past a Senate GOP blockade. Two weeks is an eternity, given that Congress could slam into a debt wall in as little as three to six weeks, according to a new estimate from the Bipartisan Policy Center — which helps explain why Democratic leaders aren’t seriously entertaining the idea of ripping up their spending bill, for now.

Of course, Democrats may still be forced to ready that unsavory off-ramp, if Republicans keep to their vow to deny President Joe Biden’s party the votes on their strategy and the global economy moves closer to a tempest.

Why is reconciliation “unsavory”? Democrats have found that process so savory this year that the Senate parliamentarian has had to limit their access to it. Progressives want to use it to pass their entire agenda, and for good reason — they can’t get any more than 50 votes for any of it, and can’t even get to 50 for most of it.

If reconciliation is good enough for the progressive agenda, why isn’t it good enough to raise the debt limit to pay for it?

That’s not to say that Democrats have cornered the market on hypocrisy when it comes to the debt ceiling. In 2018 the two parties were in the opposite positions, and Chuck Schumer felt free to lecture Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump on responsible governance at that time while the GOP accused Democrats of playing politics with the nation’s debt rating:

The Democrats have reason to believe they can win the public relations battle.

“Every American knows the Republican Party controls the White House, the Senate, the House,” Schumer said. “It’s their job to keep the government open.” It’s kind of hard to argue with this logic—unless you consider the fact that even if every Republican in the Senate voted to fund the government, Democrats would have still shut it down. But these are the kinds of details that might get lost, anyway. In 2013, Trump suggested the president is responsible for a shutdown.

That was from Matt Lewis three years ago, and Matt Lewis today as well. Now, Lewis writes, “Democrats are holding America hostage” to their demands for a blank check, not just a debt-ceiling hike in itself:

Democrats want to attach a suspension on the debt ceiling until December of 2022 to a continuing resolution. But this cannot be done via reconciliation because reconciliation rules require items to be strictly budget-related, not policy changes (raising the debt limit by a specific number is budgetary, while suspending the debt limit is a policy change). Democrats would prefer to avoid fixing the debt limit to a specific number, partly because doing so would allow Republicans to run ads saying, “Congressman so-and-so voted to raise the debt limit to a GAZILLION dollars.”

Buried in the above paragraph is evidence that a) Democrats have political reasons for wanting to rope Republicans into helping, and b) Republicans have a substantive reason for not wanting to be a party to this.

We always hear that raising the debt ceiling is about paying for past spending (in this case, partly accrued during the Trump era), but nobody would raise the limit just to barely cover past costs. And because Democrats have attached a suspension on the debt ceiling until December of 2022, Republicans rightly feel they would be complicit in Biden’s future spending, which will total in the trillions (with the caveat that Democrats are currently saying the $3.5 trillion bill would be paid for via tax increases, etc., and thus would not add to the debt).

What this means is that Republicans at least have a legitimate argument for staying out of it—this time around. “The dynamics of the new standoff are a little different [from past fights] in that Republicans aren’t seeking cuts to existing spending or some kind of tangential concession; instead they’re trying to draw a line in the sand over the trillions in new spending President Biden is proposing,” explains The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake.

Indeed. For that, Democrats can raise the debt ceiling on their own. Why would Republicans work to give Biden a blank check? McConnell’s been warning about this for months now, Lewis points out, and Democrats could have easily recast the reconciliation bill weeks ago to hold a debt-ceiling vote by now.

Instead, Schumer and Pelosi have managed to lead their troops into perhaps the only valley where they can get slaughtered in a debt-ceiling fight and have media cover it as a loss. Their Plan B in this case is just as likely to work as their Plan A strategy to buffalo Mitch McConnell into giving Biden a blank check. Not only will progressives have failed to deliver on any of their promises by the midterms, they might end up carrying the blame for a debt default and resultant economic chaos, adding to the legendary incompetence and malign neglect of the Biden era.

Hopefully, voters will have a Plan B by that time.