As the US hurtles toward a debt crisis, what does McConnell want?
By Jonathan Weisman
WASHINGTON — In March 2006, as the government veered dangerously close to a default, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the No. 2 Republican, let the Bush White House know he was two votes short of what he needed to raise the legal limit on federal borrowing.
Andrew H. Card Jr., then the White House chief of staff, began working the phones. He soon found two Democrats willing to break ranks and vote to put the legislation over the top. But instead of thanking him, the Senate leader grew irate. McConnell had been hoping to extract concessions from President George W. Bush as the price for uniting Republicans around lifting the limit.
“I don’t need your damned votes,” he snapped at Card. He lifted the debt ceiling with Republicans only.
Card never learned what the Senate leader wanted, but he tells the story for a reason: McConnell has long used the periodic need to raise the government’s borrowing limit as a moment of leverage to secure a policy win, as have leaders of both parties.
But two weeks before a potentially catastrophic default, McConnell, now the minority leader, has yet to reveal what he wants, telling President Joe Biden in a letter Monday (4), “We have no list of demands.”
Instead, he appears to want to sow political chaos for Democrats while insulating himself and other Republicans from an issue that has the potential to divide them.
McConnell has said the government must not be allowed to stop paying its debts; he has also said he will not let any Republicans vote to raise the debt limit, while moving to block Democrats from doing so themselves.
He was planning to do so again Wednesday (6) when the Senate votes on whether to take up legislation to raise the debt ceiling until December of 2022. If any Republican objects, it will take 60 votes to move forward, meaning that 10 GOP senators would have to join Democrats in doing so. No one expects those Republican votes to materialize.
McConnell has prescribed a single alternative for Democrats: Use a complicated budget process known as reconciliation to manoeuvre around the Republican filibuster that he refuses to lift.
“They need to do this, they have the time to do it, and the sooner they get about it, the better,” he said Tuesday (5).
He even seemed to taunt Democrats. A day after Biden told Republicans they “need to stop playing Russian roulette with the US economy,” McConnell, in his signature deadpan, looked into television cameras on Capitol Hill to “implore” Democrats “not to play Russian roulette with the American economy.”
Hardball tactics by Republicans on the debt ceiling are not new. Showdowns in 1995 and 1996 shut down the government but also helped foster a balanced-budget agreement. A new Republican House majority in 2011 pushed the government so close to default that Standard & Poor’s downgraded once-unassailable US debt, but it also produced the Budget Control Act, which crimped spending for years.
The 2006 showdown has been used by both parties as an object lesson. McConnell has pointed to it to show that partisanship is nothing new; among the “no” votes on the debt ceiling increase, that year were Sens. Joe Biden and Barack Obama. Democrats point to what they say is the more obvious lesson: They let the vote go through on a narrow majority, with no filibuster.
The same can be said for partisan debt ceiling increases passed in May 2003 and November 2004.
This year is different: Not only are Republicans refusing to vote for the measure, they’re creating an obstacle to stop Democrats from pushing it through themselves.
“There’s still time for 10 Republicans to join us, no matter what some of the extremists on the hard right think,” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, pleaded the day before the Wednesday vote to move to his debt ceiling bill.
Sen. Angus King of Maine, a moderate independent, sounded despondent. “There’s no bargaining. They’re just stamping their feet and saying no.”
He added, “It’s a qualitatively new level of irresponsibility.”
With no overt policy demands to be met as the price for cooperation, Democrats say for Republicans, the chaos is the point — or at least a vague hope that the latest legislative crisis will somehow undermine Democrats’ ability to fulfil unrelated parts of Biden’s agenda, especially an expansive bill to combat climate change and reweave the fraying social safety net.
“Democrats are preparing another staggering taxing and spending spree without any Republican input or support,” McConnell wrote Monday. “Bipartisanship is not a light switch that Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer may flip on to borrow money and flip off to spend it.”
Democrats are left to seethe at their opponents’ tactics.
“McConnell is singularly focused on winning control of the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections, full stop,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. and a longtime budget expert. “To his mind, that means using every tactic at his disposal to cause President Biden to fail, even if that hurts the country.”
McConnell has another powerful political incentive for his stance. He cannot control his members, and is reluctant to risk the ire of Republican base voters by leaning on senators to smooth the way for a debt-limit increase. Even if McConnell wanted to allow one to come to a majority vote, a single senator could stop it. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has made no secret of his presidential ambitions, said Tuesday that he would block any such agreement — even one to expedite the process that McConnell is demanding.
McConnell appeared to acknowledge his own tricky political position Tuesday when he said that ending the filibuster threat “would require getting consent from every single Republican,” and added, “I can’t imagine that would happen.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said “40 or 45” Republicans would be willing to agree to allow a debt ceiling increase to come to a vote, as long as they did not have to cast a public ballot. The problem, he said, was the other five.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, seemed almost relieved that McConnell had not put Democrats in a position where they would have to give in to conservative policy demands to stave off a Congress-imposed economic catastrophe.
“I have learned over many years that we cannot negotiate over things like whether or not to destroy the economy,” Schatz said, adding, “American politics has gone crazy because one party has gone crazy.”
-New York Times