The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion McConnell’s reckless new threat makes a strong case for ending the filibuster

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

With the bipartisan infrastructure bill headed for passage, congressional Democrats have released their blueprint for an ambitious reconciliation bill containing everything from supports for children and families, to expanded health-care and Medicare access, to large investments in combating global warming.

One thing it does not contain, however, is an increase in the debt ceiling — the unexploded bomb forever lurking in the federal budget. Instead, Democrats want to deal with the debt limit in a government funding bill this fall, which would require the support of 10 GOP Senators.

So Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has reiterated that, reconciliation or not, he will make sure there isn’t a single Republican vote to address the debt ceiling, so passionate are Republicans about the problem of debt.

In so doing, McConnell is making the best possible case for Democrats to get rid of the filibuster — if not entirely, then at least to avoid a global financial crisis.

For a set of arcane reasons dating back to World War I, Congress not only appropriates spending; it must take an extra vote to authorize further debt paying for what it has already appropriated. All this does is allow the opposition to blackmail the ruling party, saying they’ll refuse to authorize more debt, which would mean the United States defaults, causing global financial havoc.

For technical reasons, addressing the debt limit in the reconciliation bill would require Democrats to set a new, higher ceiling. That could complicate the process of getting the reconciliation measure through. By contrast, this other route would allow them to temporarily suspend the debt limit until a future date — which Democrats prefer.

This is supposed to call McConnell’s bluff, by daring him to make good on his threat to withhold all GOP votes for suspending the debt limit. If Republicans want to force a crisis, Democrats are saying, they’re going to own it.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has issued a statement calling on Congress to address the debt limit “on a bipartisan basis” to avert “irreparable harm to the U.S. economy.” This suggests the White House is behind the Democratic strategy of insisting that Republicans must participate constructively in dealing with this, to compel them to drop the use of this extortion strategy.

But if Democrats are really going to go this route — which is tantamount to calculating that Republicans will cave before unleashing Armageddon, an awfully risky move, given today’s GOP — they must be truly prepared to end the filibuster if McConnell does make good on this threat.

After all, Republicans have no grounds to withhold support. The debt limit doesn’t set spending levels; Congress does. And Republicans were happy to suspend the debt limit twice while Trump was president, first in 2017 and again in 2019, both times for two years.

So imagine that McConnell does withhold GOP support for addressing the debt limit. Default will loom, creating fear and uncertainty. Then the Democrats who have so adamantly resisted any filibuster reform — particularly Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) — will have to make a decision.

The foundation of their resistance to filibuster reform is that bipartisan agreement is always possible if everyone just tries hard enough. So what will they do if McConnell sticks to his guns, and the consequence would be a financial meltdown?

The best scenario would clearly be that Democrats would take the opportunity to abandon their foolish commitment to the filibuster and do away with it entirely. But even if they agreed only to a filibuster exception for the debt ceiling, that would still be progress, as it would begin acclimating Democrats to suspending the filibuster on legislation.

Here’s what you need to know about the procedure’s complicated history meant to delay, delay, delay. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Of course, real progress would mean getting rid of both the filibuster and the debt ceiling, for good. There’s no reason for the debt limit to exist: All it does is enable extortion governing.

But if Democrats won’t kill the debt limit, then McConnell’s threats should at least be entertained as yet another opening to reform or end the filibuster.

“There aren’t 10 Republicans who are willing to put country over party,” congressional scholar Norm Ornstein told us. If Democrats won’t end the debt limit once and for all, Ornstein said, “your best option otherwise is to end the filibuster.”

What’s maddening here is that the refusal by Manchin and Sinema to entertain ending the filibuster has deprived Democrats of a strong counter-position against McConnell. Each time McConnell threatens to withhold GOP support for dealing with the debt limit, needlessly raising the specter of disaster, Democrats could be pointing out that McConnell is making a strong case for ending the filibuster.

But Democrats have constrained themselves from making that argument. As Ornstein told us: “They’ve limited their options.”

If the need to defend our democracy from the GOP threat to entrench and expand minority rule is not enough to get them to reconsider their support for the filibuster, perhaps the threat of global financial meltdown might concentrate their minds.