Here’s a prediction: If Republicans take control of the Senate, McConnell will again decide that the debt limit is a “hostage that’s worth ransoming.”
Only this time, the target will be President Biden. And if McConnell miraculously doesn’t end up doing this in 2023, Republicans will rerun this playbook some other time in the near future.
Democrats should take this moment to end the debt limit once and for all, to spare themselves — or, more accurately, the country — from having to go through this ever again. They know what will happen if they do not do this, because Republicans have already shown us.
Taking the debt limit hostage isn’t quite what Republicans are doing right now. McConnell is threatening to withhold GOP support for a debt limit suspension, which Democrats want to pass in their short-term bill funding the government. He insists Democrats must raise the debt limit alone by simple majority in the reconciliation process.
But because Democrats control the Senate and do have the reconciliation option, McConnell isn’t in a position to extract concessions. That will change if he again controls the Senate.
Right now, Democrats don’t want to use the reconciliation process to raise the debt limit, because it could complicate the brutal process of passing a multi-trillion-dollar human infrastructure bill. They are rightly demanding that Republicans help them suspend it.
McConnell keeps saying that Democrats must do this by themselves, but in reality, Republicans are doing something much worse: They are threatening to filibuster. They will block Democrats from doing what Republicans say they want (i.e., to deal with it themselves) in, say, a clean vote, all to force them to do so in reconciliation, to throw wrenches into that process.
Instead of trying to shame Republicans into doing the right thing — which is like speaking to them in the Vulcan language, given that on this matter, the exercise of power is all they really understand — Democrats should put the debt limit out of its misery.
There are various ways to do this. One would be to suspend the filibuster, if only for this purpose, and simply repeal the debt limit.
Another way, suggested by Georgetown law professor David Super, would be to use reconciliation to pass something by simple majority tying the debt limit to whatever is needed to cover the national debt at any given moment, effectively nullifying it. It’s not clear whether that would pass the parliamentarian’s muster, but it’s worth trying.
The point here is that we know what will happen if they don’t do this. Republicans did succeed in taking the debt limit hostage during Obama’s first term, forcing deep spending cuts. Then McConnell and Republicans again tried this, but after extensive drama, the just-reelected Obama eventually forced Republicans to cave, with McConnell ultimately helping to broker a way out.
Then, after 2016, Democrats joined with Republicans to raise the debt limit under a Republican president, temporarily closing the door to this sort of recklessness. But now McConnell has invented a new rule: When Democrats control Washington, they are solely responsible for raising the debt limit, even though it would authorize borrowing to cover debts already racked up under the most recent GOP president, and they must overcome a Republican filibuster to do so.
There is only one answer to the sort of bad faith: A hard procedural punch in the teeth. If the only language McConnell understands is power, take the weaponry out of his hands, once and for all.
If not, McConnell winning control of the Senate will open the door to more hostage-taking. And if McConnell doesn’t take hostages in 2023, Republicans will do so soon after.
“It is an absolutely urgent priority that Democrats kill this debt ceiling issue,” congressional expert Norm Ornstein told me. If not, Ornstein said, we’ll have more “hostages taken, confrontations and an enormous danger that we’ll go into default.”
Ornstein added that failure to seize this moment will mean that, again and again, Democrats will have to “use precious time and political capital to deal with this.”
Yes, we know, moderate Democrats don’t want to suspend the filibuster or end the debt limit. They don’t want to do anything in reconciliation, particularly nullifying it, because they want Republican fingerprints on the outcome.
But you got elected to do the right thing. It’s ludicrous that the country should have to labor under this sort of extortionate threat every few years. And you know it will happen again, because Republicans have shown us so.
Time to step up and end this madness already.