The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Dangerous new threats from Trump loyalists require Democrats to act

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, has called for defunding the FBI. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Democrats cannot say they weren’t warned.

Consider these two developments. On one front, a top House Republican is threatening to use future debt-limit fights to force concessions from Democrats. Relatively sane Senate Republicans are taking this seriously, warning of a “nightmare.”

On another front, a very competitive GOP Senate candidate is insisting that Republicans must block FBI investigations into Donald Trump. This echoes other GOP demands, which are only growing.

Put all this together, and what do you get? An ugly picture of how a GOP-controlled Congress will stoke governing turmoil, to nefarious ends, including but not limited to placing Trump above the law.

If Democrats don’t use their power to act against this threat, it will be a serious dereliction of duty. Here’s a start: Pass legislation in the lame-duck session that will disable coming GOP threats to default on the nation’s borrowing limit (causing financial havoc), which Republicans will try to use as leverage to extract major concessions from them.

Yes, Democrats can do this; more on this below. But first, here’s how real the threat has become: With the nation set to hit the debt limit in early 2023, Axios reports that Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri — a front-runner for Banking Committee chair in a GOP House — is openly declaring that Republicans should use it to “reverse” the Biden administration’s “radical” policies.

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Senate Republicans and their business allies, meanwhile, tell Axios they fear exactly this outcome. One ally of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) calls this a “nightmare scenario,” and a GOP aide says McConnell plans to warn House colleagues against pursuing it.

We should treat that with skepticism, as McConnell has his own history of such brinkmanship (though he ultimately tends to cave). Here’s the game: Senate Republicans will say they fear “those crazy House Republicans” could default, to appear responsible to donors, then quietly indicate the House should use threats to get whatever they can without allowing the worst.

But that aside, all this indicates that debt-limit showdowns are almost certain, even if Republicans win only the House.

Meanwhile, note that Nevada Senate candidate Adam Laxalt is threatening that Republicans will “do something” about “political” FBI investigations. After the search of Mar-a-Lago — which was authorized by a judge and successfully produced classified documents hoarded by Trump — Laxalt fumed that after the elections, “this power grab will come to an end.”

This is a clear declaration that a GOP Congress must employ maximal tactics to thwart investigations or prosecutions of Trump. Other Republicans have floated the idea of using obscure House rules to engage in targeted defunding of investigations. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and others are demanding even broader defunding efforts.

The upshot of all this: Republicans could well use the threat of debt-limit breaches as leverage to push for such defunding. That might fail, but if the House majority is narrow, and the MAGA caucus has grown, extreme chaos or a major financial meltdown are plausible.

Do you doubt that Trump, who attacked McConnell for backing down during the last debt-limit fight, will demand such tactics, leading the MAGA caucus to take up the cause? Do you believe a House Speaker Kevin McCarthy would rebuff that caucus? What if Trump is running for president by then?

Democrats can avert this scenario. In the lame-duck, they can use the reconciliation process to pass a 2023 budget outline (with only Democrats and no Republicans), which would allow them to raise the debt limit (again without Republican support) to an amount unlikely to be reached for President Biden’s full term and well beyond.

That’s because the reconciliation process allows measures on spending, taxes, and … the debt limit, notes Georgetown University law professor David Super, a specialist in congressional procedure. This is probably doable without setting the debt limit at a hard number that Republicans would attack.

Democrats could set the debt limit at, say, the equivalent of five times the total spending on a particular set of major agencies at that given moment, Super says. The precise language might not pass muster with the parliamentarian, but it’s worth trying, and if necessary, Democrats could revert to a hard number.

The bottom line? Democrats can “use reconciliation procedures that end-run the filibuster,” Super told me. “With everything that’s happening in China and Europe, we don’t need the U.S. in sovereign default. The world economy is going to be hit hard enough.”

This will spook moderate Democrats. But as political scientist Jonathan Bernstein notes, most voters don’t pay close attention to parliamentary procedure. Voters do pay attention to economic conditions, which under default would get really, really bad.

No matter how culpable Republicans are, Biden would likely take the blame for such a meltdown, heading into 2024. Any political price for raising the debt limit would be a pittance compared with that.

Nor can Democrats count on Biden succeeding in using the bully pulpit to force Republicans to back down. Trump’s pull on Republicans might be too strong, and he has said clearly that he expects Republicans to use control of Congress to protect him from accountability and the law. The MAGA caucus sees this as perhaps their highest calling. Threatening default toward that end, no matter how damaging, would be something they relish.

We know what’s likely to happen. Republicans are telling us so themselves. Democrats need to protect the country before it’s too late.