The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Is McConnell going soft on the debt limit? There’s a lesson here for Democrats.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), departs during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Nov. 18. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Within the next few weeks, we could face a default on America’s debts, triggering an economic crisis with global implications. But whether that comes to pass is in the hands of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — and he seems to be hesitating on pushing us to the brink.

“Let me assure everyone, the government will not default, as it never has,” McConnell said Tuesday.

Republicans itching to force a fiscal catastrophe to blame on President Biden might say McConnell is going wobbly. Indeed, in a statement, Donald Trump raged that McConnell is getting “beaten” by “Radical Left Democrats.”

But if McConnell is indeed going wobbly, there may be a lesson here for Democrats in how to exert future leverage against him.

The debt ceiling simply authorizes the government to pay bills incurred by spending Congress has already authorized. But Congress keeps suspending or raising it only for short periods, inevitably producing another crisis before long; the last time was in October.

Now we’re reaching a cliff once again. The Congressional Budget Office just announced that even if the government employs tricks to keep paying its bills, including moving around highway money, “the Treasury would most likely run out of cash before the end of December.” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warns this would “eviscerate our current recovery” and threaten “deep recession.”

Yet as long as Republicans filibuster a debt ceiling increase in the Senate, we can’t avert that disaster. So what now?

One option for Democrats would be to raise the debt limit as part of the Build Back Better bill that they hope to pass by simple majority via reconciliation, a process that cannot be filibustered. The problem is that the BBB may take another month or two to pass, making it too late to avoid default.

Another option is to work out a deal with McConnell in which Republicans refrain from filibustering an increase in the ceiling that Democrats would pass on their own outside the reconciliation process, even if Republicans don’t vote for it.

You’d think McConnell won’t let that happen. But when Punchbowl News questioned McConnell about this, he seemed oddly conciliatory, saying he’s discussing this with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.):

“We’re still talking about that,” McConnell told us, referring to his conversations with Schumer on the debt limit.
We pressed him again -- were the conversations with Schumer recent? “Yeah, we’re still talking about it.”
No saber rattling, no threats -- nothing. That’s a pretty significant departure from McConnell’s more hardline rhetoric earlier this year, and it signals a very serious effort to come to an agreement and avoid a debt-limit standoff.

What gives?

It’s plausible McConnell is sending accommodating noises in part because of what happened last time. Remember, McConnell insisted Democrats must deal with the debt limit via the “reconciliation” process only with Democrats, even as Republicans filibustered to prevent Democrats from suspending it alone outside that process.

McConnell did this because he wanted to foul up Democrats’ use of reconciliation to pass BBB. But it started to look like Democrats might carve out an exception to the filibuster, to enable themselves to suspend the debt limit on their own outside reconciliation. Then McConnell blinked and agreed that Republicans would not filibuster a short term debt limit suspension.

Also recall that even the most avowed Democratic opponents of ending the filibuster — such as Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — seemed open to a carve-out to deal with the debt limit. If McConnell was going to threaten default and economic collapse, that would leave even the Manchins of the world with little choice but to suspend the filibuster to avoid it.

McConnell himself privately told GOP senators that he did this to reduce pressure on Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to join in suspending the filibuster, according to NBC News. So McConnell gave in.

Which is why we’re here now. But this time, McConnell has already seen Democrats creep up to the edge of ending the filibuster in response to his default threats. And he doesn’t want that to happen again, since a temporary carve-out might open the door to lasting filibuster reform.

McConnell may be making conciliatory noises with no intention of reaching a deal to raise the debt limit. Or he may actually mean it. But either way, one key driver here might be wanting to defuse anti-filibuster energy among Democrats.

Democrats might learn from this. The mere possibility of ending the filibuster, even if temporarily, might be a real point of leverage against McConnell. So there’s no reason to let him throw his weight around this time, either.

“The lesson we learned last round is that McConnell was so desperate to preserve his weapon of obstruction that he persuaded his caucus to cave the moment it became apparent that Democrats could eliminate it,” Eli Zupnick of the anti-filibuster Fix Our Senate told us. “Now there’s no reason for Democrats to give an inch.”

In 2011, when Barack Obama was president and Republicans controlled the House, we got so close to defaulting that America’s credit rating was downgraded. When that crisis ended, McConnell said the debt ceiling was “a hostage that’s worth ransoming.”

The real “hostage” isn’t the debt ceiling, it’s the American economy. But Democrats are in a stronger negotiating position today than they were then. And McConnell appears to know it.