The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mitch McConnell is threatening more mayhem. Democrats plan to call his bluff.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Ever since Donald Trump’s loss, Republicans have had repeated opportunities to take off-ramps from their ongoing radicalization — and have refused. They buttressed his 2020 lies, helped whitewash the insurrection, killed a Jan. 6 commission, and humored fringe lawmakers embracing political violence and anti-vaccine derangement.

Now Republicans are about to have yet another opportunity to take such an off-ramp. And Democrats hope to compel them to take it.

That’s one way to understand the looming battle over Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s new round of threats around the debt limit, which will have to be raised or temporarily suspended very soon, lest the country get forced into default, unleashing financial catastrophe.

The Kentucky Republican is warning that no Republican senator will vote to raise the debt ceiling, and insisting that Democrats must do this alone in the reconciliation process, where they can pass it by a simple majority.

But a Democrat familiar with the situation confirms to me that Democrats are unlikely to raise the debt limit as part of reconciliation. Instead, the aide says, they’ll look to a government funding bill in September as the vehicle to raise or suspend it.

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This move, which confirms what Politico and others have reported, means Republican support will be required. But McConnell recently issued the threat that there won’t be “a single Republican” to support a debt ceiling hike.

Republicans are now lining up behind McConnell. Several told Punchbowl News that they won’t support a hike, because Democrats are aiming to spend $3.5 trillion on human infrastructure, and that Republicans will use it as leverage to insist on “reforms,” i.e., spending cuts.

First, let’s note that the GOP position is ridiculous. The debt limit does not set spending levels; Congress does. A hike merely facilitates borrowing to pay for what Congress has already appropriated.

And Republicans and Democrats alike joined together to extend the debt limit when the GOP-led Congress during Trump’s presidency was running up the bills. What’s more, as Catherine Rampell notes, the current debt limit hike or suspension will also facilitate paying off debt that Republicans helped run up while in power.

But regardless, if Democrats hold to their new stance, it will call Republicans’ bluff, compelling Republicans to drop their effort to use what is a routine vote to threaten mayhem and force a needless crisis. So what’s the Democratic thinking here?

A key element of this is that the Senate is a place where Republicans will find it hard to execute such a radical tactic.

The history here is instructive. The most prominent effort by Republicans to pull this dangerous stunt came during the Barack Obama presidency. There the results were mixed, though Obama was ultimately able to force Republicans to buckle in 2013.

In that case, though, the genesis of the crisis was in the House, precipitated by Republicans ushered in by the 2010 tea party wave. This time, with Democrats in control of the House, Republicans in the Senate will be forcing the crisis. They are less likely to go as far down this road to crazytown.

Also consider this difference between now and the Obama years: This time, big chunks of spending went to the government’s emergency response to the pandemic and the economic crisis it unleashed, which was necessary to stave off a calamity created in large part by Trump.

And, of course, Trump’s tax cut for the rich and corporations also added to the balance sheet big time. It will be laughable if Republicans try to threaten a financial crisis with phony misdirection about spending after their outsize role in creating this situation.

Making that prospect even more comical, a Democrat points out that Republicans like McConnell and Trump are on record justifying a debt limit extension during the Trump years. In 2019, for instance, McConnell directly equated raising it with the need to “secure the full faith and credit of the United States.”

Another part of this for Democrats, an aide tells me, is that moderates are reluctant to include a debt limit hike in reconciliation because for technical reasons that requires specifying a particular number for that ceiling. By contrast, doing it in a spending bill allows Congress to just temporarily suspend the debt limit until a future date.

In the end, this might stand as another way to try to lure Republicans from taking an off-ramp from their ongoing radicalization. The bipartisan infrastructure deal looks likely to pass, perhaps with as many as 20 GOP senators. If this happens, and Democrats can get Republicans to support a debt limit extension, it will hopefully continue coaxing Republicans in out of the cold.

Of course, with Republicans radicalizing on numerous other fronts, that would be pretty small consolation, and Democrats should continue aggressively prosecuting the case against that radicalization. But we have to take what small victories over the crazy we can get.

Update: This piece has been edited to clarify the history of the debt limit during the Obama years.