Mitch McConnell says GOP won’t agree to raise debt limit again
In the frantic bid to avert a default on the nation’s debt, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell held a position of unusual power — as the one who orchestrated both the problem and the solution.
McConnell is no longer the majority leader, but he is exerting his minority status in convoluted and uncharted ways, all in an effort to stop President Biden’s domestic agenda, even when doing so pushes the country toward grave economic uncertainty.
All said, the outcome of this debt crisis leaves zero confidence there won’t be another one. In fact, McConnell engineered an end to the standoff that ensures Congress will be in the same spot in December, when funding to pay America’s bills next runs out. That means another potentially devastating debt showdown as the COVID-19 crisis lingers and the economy struggles to recover.
“Mitch McConnell loves chaos,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. “He’s a very smart tactician and strategist, but the country pays the price so often for what he does.”
The latest crisis has cemented McConnell’s legacy as a master of misdirection. He’s the architect of the impasse and the one who resolves it, if only for the short term. More battles are to come as Democrats narrow Biden’s big agenda, including a now-$2-trillion expansion of health, childcare and climate change programs, all paid for with taxes on corporations and the wealthy that Republicans oppose.
The Senate dodged a U.S. debt disaster, voting to extend the government’s borrowing authority into December and temporarily avert a federal default.
To some Republicans, McConnell is a shrewd leader, using every tool at his disposal to leverage power and undermine Biden’s priorities. To others, including former President Trump, he is weak, having “caved” too soon. To Democrats, McConnell remains an infuriating rival who has shown again he is willing to break one institutional norm after another to pursue Republican power.
“McConnell’s role is to be the leader of the opposition, and it’s his job to push back on what the majority wants to do,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist.
“Nobody should be surprised to see the leader of the Republicans making the Democrats’ job harder,” he said.
Biden, in comments made via video Saturday at the Democratic National Committee’s fall meeting, hinted at the damage McConnell could inflict on the party’s current agenda and on its broader case to the electorate. The president urged activists at the virtual meeting to keep making the case for government solutions, even as Republicans try to undercut that message.
“Just as the Republican Party today offers nothing but fear, lies and broken promises, we have to keep cutting through the Republican fog that government is the problem, and show that we the people are always the solution,” Biden said.
The risks are clear, and not just for Biden and the Democrats who control Washington.
During the debt showdown, Republicans sought to portray Democrats as big spenders, willing to boost the nation’s $28.4 trillion in debt to pay the bills. But both parties have contributed to that load with past decisions that leave the government rarely operating in the black.
It would be the token of all tokens: a $1-trillion coin that backers say could solve the political impasse over suspending the U.S. debt limit.
Republicans risk recriminations from all sides of their deeply divided party. In easing off the crisis, McConnell insulated them from further blame, but infuriated Trump and his allies, who are eager to skewer the Kentucky senator for giving in.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said he told colleagues in a private meeting before the debt vote that it was “a mistake for Republican leadership to agree to this deal.”
Raising the debt limit, once a routine vote to ensure the nation’s bills are paid, has become a political weapon for the GOP to rail against government spending. Tea party Republicans a decade ago brought the nation to the brink of default over the issue, setting a new GOP strategy.
In this case, McConnell made clear that he had no demands other than to disrupt Biden’s domestic agenda, the “Build Back Better” package that is the president’s signature legislation but is derided by Republicans as a “socialist tax-and-spending spree.”
In muscling Biden’s agenda to passage, Democrats are relying on a complicated procedure, the budget reconciliation process, which requires 51 votes for approval rather than the 60 typically needed to overcome objections in the Senate. In the 50-50 split Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris gives Democrats the majority with her ability to cast a tiebreaking vote.
The semi-regular debt limit fight is politics at its worst.
McConnell seized on the Democratic budget strategy as a way to conflate the issues, announcing months ago he wanted Democrats to increase the debt limit on their own using the same procedure. It was his way of linking Biden’s big federal government overhaul with the nation’s rising debt load, even though they are separate and most of Biden’s agenda hasn’t been enacted.
The debt-raising vote has rarely been popular, and both parties have had to do it on their own at times. But McConnell broke new legislative ground in trying to dictate the terms to Democrats.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) ignored McConnell’s demands to use the cumbersome process, and set out on a more traditional route to pass the debt ceiling bill.
With the approach of the Oct. 18 deadline — the date when Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen says the government will run out of money to pay the nation’s bills — Schumer’s strategy hit the Republican blockade, the threat of a filibuster. Only after pressure from big business mounted and Biden implored Republicans to “get out of the way” did McConnell call a timeout.
McConnell orchestrated the way around the problem by allowing the traditional vote on Thursday night, even joining 10 other Republican senators to help Democrats reach the 60-vote threshold needed to ease off the crisis.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki lauded the Republicans who “did their part ... ending the filibuster and allowing Democrats to do the work of raising the debt limit.” But she urged the parties to come together to find a more permanent solution.
“We can’t allow the routine process of paying our bills to turn into a confidence-shaking political showdown every two years or every two months,” she said.
Schumer struck a more acerbic tone.
“Republicans played a dangerous and risky partisan game, and I am glad that their brinkmanship did not work,” he said.
That, too, brought trouble: McConnell said in letter to Biden late Friday that such antics ensure that he “will not provide such assistance again.”
That night before voting, McConnell told Republican colleagues that he devised the solution in part because he was worried that Democrats would change the filibuster rules, which they were discussing as an option of last resort. He had reached out to two key Democrats, centrist Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, to ensure they weren’t thinking of agreeing to that.
The Republican leader had already accomplished his goal: jamming up Biden’s agenda, sowing the seeds of fiscal distress and portraying the Democrats as a party struggling to govern.
It’s the first big fight that McConnell has picked with Biden, and it appears to be the one that could define the final phase of their decades-long association.
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