WASHINGTON – In March 2006, as the government approached perilously a default, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican No.2, told the Bush White House that he was missing two votes. to raise the legal borrowing limit.
Andrew H. Card Jr., then White House chief of staff, began working on phones. He quickly found two Democrats ready to break ranks and vote to put the legislation above. But Mr. McConnell was waiting for something else, hoping to get concessions from President George W. Bush as a price for uniting Republicans around lifting the limit.
“I don’t need your fucking votes,” he called out to Mr. Card. He raised the debt ceiling with Republicans only.
Mr Card never learned what the Leader of the Senate wanted, but he tells the story for a reason: Mr McConnell has long used the periodic need to increase the government’s borrowing limit as leverage to secure a political victory, as did the leaders of both sides.
But two weeks before a potentially catastrophic default, Mr McConnell has yet to reveal what he wants, telling President Biden in a letter Monday: “We don’t have a list of demands.”
Instead, he seems intent on wreaking political havoc for Democrats while isolating himself and other Republicans from an issue that has the potential to divide them.
Mr McConnell said the government should not be allowed to stop paying its debts; he also said he would not let any Republican vote to increase the limit, while repeatedly trying to prevent Democrats from doing it themselves. Instead, he prescribed a way forward for Democrats: use a complicated budget process known as reconciliation to bypass a Republican obstruction he refuses to lift.
When asked what he wanted, it was his response: “As I have been saying for two months, I want them to do it through reconciliation.”
Republicans’ tough debt ceiling tactics are nothing new. The clashes of 1995 and 1996 paralyzed the government, but also helped push for an agreement on a balanced budget. A new Republican majority in the House in 2011 pushed the government so close to default that Standard & Poor’s lowered the once unassailable US debt rating, but it also produced the Budget Control Act, which cut spending during years.
The 2006 showdown was used by both sides as an object lesson. Mr. McConnell pointed this out to show that partisanship is nothing new; Among the “no” votes on increasing the debt ceiling that year were Senators Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Barack Obama. Democrats point to what they say is the most obvious lesson: They let the vote go by a narrow majority, unblocked.
The same goes for the partisan debt ceiling hikes voted in May 2003 and November 2004, which, like the 2006 vote, were put in place by a procedural maneuver that required the assent of every Democrat who voted at the time. versus.
This year has been different: Republicans obstructed a measure to raise the debt ceiling and maintain government funding. On Wednesday, they should block another measure, voted by the House, which does only one thing: raise the debt ceiling.
“There is no negotiation,” said Senator Angus King of Maine, a moderate independent. “They stamp their feet and say no.”
He added: “This is a qualitatively new level of irresponsibility.”
With no overt political demands to be met as a price for cooperation, Democrats say chaos is the point – or at least a vague hope that the latest legislative crisis will somehow undermine their ability. to fulfill unrelated parts of Mr Biden’s agenda, in particular an ambitious bill to tackle climate change and reweave the unraveling social safety net.
“Democrats are planning another tax and spending frenzy without any Republican contributions or support,” McConnell wrote on Monday. “Bipartism is not a switch that President Pelosi and Chief Schumer can turn on to borrow money and turn off to spend it.”
Since the switch is currently off, he says, Democrats have only one way forward: the Senate Budget Committee must produce a resolution with instructions to raise the debt ceiling, which must then pass through the House and Senate and resist a barrage of hostile amendments. . Then the House must draft and vote on a separate bill to raise the debt ceiling, which would then go to the Senate, where it could not filibuster but would again have to survive a wave of politically difficult votes. Any proposal could be considered, and if one were adopted, the measure would be forcibly returned to the House.
And they have 14 days to do so.
Democrats are being ignored by the tactics of their opponents.
“McConnell is uniquely focused on gaining control of the Senate in the 2022 midterm election, period,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland and longtime budget expert. “For him that means using every tactic at his disposal to defeat President Biden, even if it hurts the country.”
Another factor could be at play: Mr McConnell cannot control his membership and is reluctant to risk the wrath of voters at the Republican base. Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri have made no secret of their presidential ambitions, with uncompromising positions that appeal to the grassroots.
Even if Mr McConnell wanted to allow an increase in the debt ceiling to result in a majority vote, a single senator could delay action. And 10 Republicans would be needed to cut a filibuster run by Mr. Cruz or Mr. Hawley; these votes might be hard to come by.
Sen. Roy Blunt, Republican from Missouri, said “40 or 45” Republicans would be prepared to accept an increase in the debt ceiling in a vote, provided they do not have to vote publicly. The problem, he said, is the other five.
Understanding the US debt ceiling
What is the debt limit? The debt limit is a cap on the total amount of money the federal government is allowed to borrow through US Treasury bills and savings bonds to meet its financial obligations. Because the United States has budget deficits, it has to borrow huge sums of money to pay its bills.
“It must be everyone,” Blunt said, predicting that Wednesday’s debt ceiling vote would be filibuster again.
Hawaii Democrat Senator Brian Schatz seemed almost relieved that Mr. McConnell failed to put Democrats in a position to give in to the demands of Conservative politics to avoid a Congress-imposed economic catastrophe.
“I have learned over many years that we cannot negotiate on things like whether or not to destroy the economy,” Mr Schatz said, adding: “American politics has gone mad because one party is gone mad.”
With each passing day, the crisis becomes more and more inevitable. Every day that Democrats refuse to give in to Mr McConnell’s demands to use the reconciliation process, it becomes all the more difficult for the maneuver to be completed in time to avoid default. And every day Democrats demand that Republicans blink their eyes, they respond that Democrats are to blame for not using the process when they had the time.
“You still have time before you reach the edge of the cliff,” Card said of the current debt ceiling showdown. “And this time should be used for dialogue.”
How will it end? One option Mr Van Hollen said Democrats might have no choice but to pursue is to change the filibuster rules so that increasing the borrowing limit, and any future increase, can be adopted with 50 votes.
Mr King, who was reluctant to change the rules, said he had to agree.
“I have been very reluctant for nine years to change the filibuster rule, especially with regard to politics, but it has nothing to do with politics,” he said. “It’s about keeping the United States and the world out of what could be a serious recession.”
Emily cochrane contributed reports.