Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell shows no signs of cracking as President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats squeeze Republicans to support raising the federal debt limit just days before the United States exhausts its borrowing power.
The Kentucky Republican is urging Senate Democrats to include a provision to raise the debt ceiling in Biden’s $3.5 trillion “reconciliation” spending package, legislation protected from the filibuster that requires just 51 votes to clear. This week, as Biden expressed cautious optimism McConnell would acquiesce, the Senate minority leader flatly declared nothing has changed since summer, when he first warned Democrats no Republican support for increasing the U.S. Treasury’s borrowing limit was forthcoming.
Biden and congressional Democrats, not to mention the financial markets and rank-and-file voters, ought to believe McConnell and disabuse themselves of the notion he will cave under pressure as an Oct. 18 deadline approaches for Washington to maintain its ability to borrow money and stay current with creditors. That’s according to Republican operatives who have advised McConnell since he was first elected Senate GOP leader by members of his conference nearly 15 years ago.
“Mitch McConnell is not someone who is full of hyperbole and bluster,” said Josh Holmes, a close confidant of McConnell and his former chief of staff. “When he says, ‘This is what you need to do,’ this is what you need to do. It’s not a suggestion or a helpful hint, it’s the only road to get something done.”
Biden and Democratic leaders are mired in twin Capitol Hill struggles. They are trying to clear through the House a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate with nearly 20 Republican votes, and they are attempting to coalesce warring liberal and centrist Democrats in both chambers around the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package — or some version of it. Simultaneously, the Senate has to dispose of the debt ceiling. (The House already did so.)
Senate Democrats, who hold a 50-seat “majority” courtesy of Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote, are resisting the reconciliation option for increasing the debt limit, saying the process is risky in that it is lengthy and cumbersome and might blow past Oct. 18. Politically, Democrats want to share responsibility for putting the federal balance sheet deeper into the red ahead of the midterm elections, rather than being saddled with sole ownership of that vote.
“There is no scenario in God’s green Earth where it should be worth risking millions of jobs, trillions in household wealth, people’s social security checks, veterans’ benefits, and another recession, just to score short-term meaningless political points,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer of New York said in a floor speech , warning McConnell was leading the nation, and the globe, off a fiscal cliff. “That’s what Republicans seem fixated on doing.”
Senate Democrats were scheduled Wednesday to test the Republicans’ commitment to withholding their support for increasing the federal borrowing limit, with plans to hold a vote on stand-alone legislation requiring 10 GOP votes to proceed if all 50 Democrats are supportive, as is expected.
Republican operatives close to McConnell and others in the GOP conference say the vote is sure to fail, as will attempts to shame the minority leader and scare rank-and-file members into providing Democrats with the votes they need to raise the debt ceiling outside of reconciliation.
To begin with, McConnell rarely makes a move like this without first ensuring he has buy-in from the vast majority of his conference.
More significantly, Senate Republicans are supporting McConnell’s strategy because Democrats chose to go it alone with the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, spending far more than the GOP believes is prudent on proposals they oppose in any event. Given they were locked out of this process, and confident their support for the $1 trillion infrastructure bill proves they are open to compromise, Republicans are comfortable sitting on their hands while Democrats figure out the debt ceiling.
“They want to do everything on their own, so we’re going to let them do it on their own,” a Republican lobbyist said. “There’s nothing preventing them from doing it on their own.”