BREAKING: Did McConnell just win the debt-ceiling standoff?

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

It depends on whether the Senate Minority Leader can deliver — and whether anyone sees debt increases as a “win.” Suffice it to say that Mitch McConnell appeared to get what he needed out of the inevitable. As Manu Raju reports, the handshake deal with Chuck Schumer ensures a finite debt ceiling and complete ownership of the hike by Democrats.

In exchange, all McConnell has to deliver is a quiet process without attempts to derail the vote. Is that possible, however?

To get there, however, the Senate will have to pass that one-time rule change — and that will require some Republican votes:

Senate leaders are weighing a plan that would allow Democrats to pass legislation raising the nation’s borrowing limit ahead of a Dec. 15 deadline without any support from Republicans in the evenly divided chamber.

Under the scheme being considered, at least 60 senators — including 10 Republicans — would have to support a one-time rule change allowing the debt ceiling extension to pass by a simple majority, rather than forcing the bill to clear the 60-vote legislative filibuster.

Can McConnell deliver 10 Republican votes? That remains to be seen, but Schumer sounded unusually generous to his GOP opponents this morning about the debt-ceiling issue:

Politico also reported that McConnell is making progress within his caucus, perhaps especially since this deal allows them to vote no on a debt-ceiling increase without risking potential credit damage if the US “defaults” on its debt payments:

“We all know the debt limit has to be raised and we know the Democrats are going to be delivering the votes to do it. The question is, what’s the process?” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s top deputy. “I know we’ve got to raise the debt limit. And I have no intention of voting to raise the debt limit, if we enable or allow a process that enables the Democrats to do it? Again, I’m going to wait and see what the leader has to say.”

Thune was among 11 Republicans who voted to break a filibuster on raising the debt ceiling in October, an internal debacle for McConnell, who had spent weeks insisting Democrats raise the debt limit via the budget reconciliation process. McConnell is trying to avoid a sequel to that episode, although several of the scenarios being discussed will require Republicans like Thune to grease the skids for Democrats.

Thune’s comments are a perfect distillation of the nonsensical nature of this process. Members of Congress from both parties luuuuurve to vote for deficit spending but balk at taking any responsibility for it. Thune has no doubt voted for more than one recent budget that borrows 40 cents on the dollar even outside of emergencies, so why won’t he vote for a debt-ceiling hike?

This case is different, Republicans are quick to respond, because the need for a debt-ceiling hike is being driven by Joe Biden’s massive off-budget spending demands, including Build Back Better and the bipartisan infrastructure bill rather than just the normal budget. True enough, and it’s also true that Democrats want to suspend the ceiling rather than raise it to allow themselves a blank check. All of that is good reason to insist that Democrats own a specific target for the debt ceiling, but not to oppose a hike at all.

If Thune and other Republicans want to stop hiking the debt ceiling, then they need to start proposing balanced budgets. Rand Paul has actually done so and Mike Lee joined him in supporting it, but the rest of the Senate GOP caucus are deficit spenders. Until Republicans stop just talking about fiscal discipline but begin to literally put our money where their mouths are, this is just a nonsensical game.

In that context, this is as good as it gets, which is not to say that it’s good at all. Democrats get to own a limited debt ceiling hike that will constrain their worst spending impulses, and Republicans get to keep their rhetorical skirts clean. McConnell’s getting the best out of a bad situation — if he can deliver.