Another such moment is in the offing, because there has been massive spending and borrowing — much of it necessary to cope with the unforeseen covid-19 pandemic — but no new debt limit since Aug. 1, 2019, when the limit was suspended for two years. Since the end of July, therefore, Treasury has lacked authority to borrow. It can shift cash among various accounts to meet obligations for a couple of months, avoiding default. With each passing day, however, that potential disaster gets slightly less unthinkable.
The right way to deal with the debt ceiling is to share the responsibility for increasing it on a bipartisan basis. That is, on the same basis that the Senate, in a welcome display of functionality, has just passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure measure. The 2019 suspension also came about on a bipartisan vote.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), however, has announced that his caucus will not back a debt-limit increase this fall, in response, he says, to the Democrats’ party-line enactment of a $1.9 trillion debt-funded covid relief package in March, and to their plans for a $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” plan via the same procedure in the near future. “If they don’t need or want our input, they won’t get our help,” Mr. McConnell said. No matter that the debt ceiling enables the government to service the entire U.S. debt, including the amount that was run up because of tax cuts and spending increases when the Republicans controlled both Congress and the White House under President Donald Trump.
Democrats could, and maybe should, have gotten the debt-limit business over with in March, as part of their covid package. Faced with Mr. McConnell’s partisan trolling now, however, they are responding in kind, leaving the debt ceiling out of their $3.5 trillion party-line anti-poverty and climate blueprint, as well as the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. Democrats may yet try linking a debt-limit measure to a must-pass government-funding measure due by the end of September, putting Mr. McConnell and the GOP on the hook for a possible partial federal shutdown.
All of the above makes perfect sense, under the passive-aggressive rules of the Washington game. On a substantive level, though, it’s somewhere between embarrassing and dangerous. A default would harm all Americans regardless of party. A vote to back “the full faith and credit of the United States” is a pragmatic and patriotic one, which all senators should be eager and proud to cast. Any takers?