October 9, 2013

There is an interesting irony at the heart of the predicament Senate Republicans may soon find themselves in when it comes to voting on whether to raise the debt limit cleanly, with no conditions. Some of the procedural techniques that Senate Republicans have exploited to such great effect during the Obama presidency may actually work against them this time.

Senate Democratic aides point out to me that there are two overarching ways this thing could unfold. Which of the two happens turns on the question of how far Republicans will go in using delaying tactics to slow the Senate clock — and in this case, the looming default deadline could render such tactics counter productive.

Some time this week, Senate Democrats will hold the initial motion to proceed vote on a clean debt limit hike. That’s probably the easiest procedural hurdle to overcome, since it’s the first vote. Democratic aides expect that Senate Dems will all stick together — and pick up six Republicans — meaning it would pass. To greatly over-simplify, the question then becomes how aggressively Republicans will use the process to slow things down, heading into the second cloture vote (which will also require 60 to pass, and will be a tougher hurdle than the first one), and then the final, simple majority vote.

The rub is that if Republicans do drag the process out, that second cloture vote could end up occurring significantly closer to next week’s debt ceiling deadline of October 17th, meaning the pressure on moderate Senate Republicans to approve it will be significantly more intense than, say, this week. In other words, delaying tactics could make it more likely that moderate Republicans in the Senate vote to break the GOP filibuster.

So it would be in Republicans’ interest to refrain from using delaying tactics, so the vote occurs sooner, making it easier for moderates to vote No, right? Well, that may not be a good option, either. If Republicans do successfully filibuster the debt ceiling hike, Senate Dem aides note, there could well be a significant market reaction, which Dems will in turn blame on them — increasing the pressure for a Yes vote if and when Dems hold a vote again.

“Either they vote to filibuster the debt ceiling hike immediately, in which case they own the market reaction if it gets rattled,” a Senate Dem leadership aide tells me. “Or they push this to days before the deadline, and then the pressure becomes even more intense on moderate Republicans to not filibuster.”

Now, it’s always possible that October 17th may not end up looming with quite the urgency that some expect it will, in part due to Wall Street complacency that in the end, Congress won’t really breach the debt limit. But a successful GOP filibuster of a clean debt limit hike — or procedural delays that push us up against the deadline — could lead to some real panicking. And seven Senate Republicans who are presumably not in “default denial” mode are already open to supporting a clean debt limit hike, before any of this has happened.

“There’s a certain irony here in that the slow moving Senate could push opponents of a clean debt limit right up to an 11th hour deadline that then could then force their hand,” Sarah Binder, a Congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, tells me. If so, what happens then among House Republicans remains anyone’s guess.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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