Did Mitch McConnell cave?

Democrats just got a lifeline on the debt ceiling. But what does it mean long-term?
Isaac Saul Oct 7, 2021

Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're covering the standoff over the debt limit, and what Mitch McConnell just did. Plus, a question about giving cash to Americans. Reminder: if you'd rather listen, you can always check out our podcast here. It's an audio version of the newsletter.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Photo: Gage Skidmore

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Quick hits.

  1. A federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked the state's new anti-abortion law. However, clinics could still face retroactive lawsuits because the ruling isn't permanent. (The ruling)
  2. Pfizer has asked the FDA to authorize its vaccine for children 5 to 11 years old. (The ask)
  3. A new Senate report details how Justice Department officials fought off former President Donald Trump's push to investigate claims the election was stolen from him. (The report)
  4. A small number of U.S. troops have been deployed to Taiwan to help train local forces as the threat from China rises. (The deployment)
  5. U.S. gasoline prices rose to an average of $3.22, with some stations charging over $5 per gallon, the highest prices since October of 2014. (The prices)

Today's topic.

Mitch McConnell (and the debt ceiling). Yesterday, the Senate Minority Leader opened the door for Democrats to suspend the debt limit.

Back up: The debt ceiling is the maximum amount of money the United States can borrow. Our government borrows money when the Treasury Department issues government securities, or treasury bonds, that other institutions and countries buy. That infuses the government with cash, and it means our debt is owned by U.S. institutions, the U.S. public, and other nations. We explained how this works in a September edition.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said we need to raise our debt ceiling in the next few weeks, or we risk defaulting on our debt — something that could hurt our credit rating and set off a global financial crisis.

Historically speaking, the debt ceiling is a bit of a joke in Congress because we always end up raising or suspending it when we get close to hitting it. It's been raised 78 times since 1960 (49 times under Republican presidents and 29 times under Democratic presidents). The last time it was suspended was under President Trump in August of 2019. But that doesn't stop members of Congress from using threats not to raise it as leverage.

So what's this got to do with McConnell? He has said he would not support raising the borrowing limit because it would allow Biden to push through another $5 trillion of spending, something Republicans don't want. Then he instructed Republicans to sink a government spending bill that suspended the debt limit, forcing Democrats to remove the debt limit language from the legislation in order to keep the government open. That started a game of chicken that's been going on for the last couple of weeks. Democrats could have raised the borrowing limit on their own, but it would have required passing it in a reconciliation bill or picking a specific number to raise the debt ceiling to — risky propositions, both politically and for the nation’s economy. Democrats said if they included it in reconciliation, for instance, but the bill failed for another reason, we’d end up running out of time and defaulting on the debt anyway.

... Then what happened? Earlier this week, Senate Democrats and President Biden began openly floating the idea of abolishing the filibuster altogether to raise the debt ceiling. The filibuster is the Senate rule that essentially ensures most big legislation needs 60 votes to become law. McConnell does not want Democrats to abolish the filibuster, because Republicans are currently in the minority in the Senate (it's a 50-50 split, but Democrats have the tie breaking vote courtesy of Vice President Kamala Harris). According to reporting from Politico and Axios, McConnell fears the pressure to abolish the filibuster is ramping up, so he’s come forward with a deal to move the debt ceiling.

The deal McConnell proposed presents two options: He would agree to rule changes that would allow Democrats to either fast-track the suspension of the debt limit using a budget reconciliation process or raise the limit to a specified figure through December, giving them more time to figure it out later and ensuring the process doesn't get caught up in other partisan wrangling (it'd also take the pressure off Democrats now, as they figure out how to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion reconciliation deal).

“McConnell caved,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “Looks like Mitch McConnell is folding to the Democrats, again,” Trump said. McConnell himself seemed to allude to the threat of losing the filibuster: “It’s not clear whether the Democratic leaders have wasted two-and-a-half months because they simply cannot govern, or whether they are intentionally playing Russian roulette with the economy to try to bully their own members into going back on their word and wrecking the Senate,” he said on the Senate floor.

Either way, it means if the Democrats take the punt, the debt ceiling crisis will be pushed off until December, and the party can focus all its energy on figuring out how the two-track process for the infrastructure and reconciliation bills will work.

Below, we'll take a look at some of the latest commentaries on the debt ceiling, the filibuster, McConnell, and where things are right now.


What the right is saying.

The right argues Democrats are trying to avoid a tough vote, and McConnell just exposed their hypocrisy.

In The National Review, John McCormack says McConnell's latest move reveals the Democrats' deception.

"In the current debt-ceiling standoff, the Democratic argument essentially boils down to this: Republicans helped create the debt; therefore, they must help raise the debt ceiling. The Republican argument essentially boils down to this: Democrats are on a partisan spending spree; therefore, they should raise the debt ceiling by themselves to make room for their new spending," McCormack wrote. "Maybe you find one of these arguments more persuasive than the other... But one thing separating Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer from Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell this week is that Schumer hasn’t been telling the truth about what he has the power to do.

"Schumer has been pretending for several days now that Senate Democrats simply lack the time to raise the debt ceiling through the reconciliation process, which requires a simple majority without having to overcome the usual 60-vote hurdle," he wrote. "That was not and still is not true: A vote-a-rama — the long series of nonbinding amendment votes required during the reconciliation process — takes a matter of hours, not days. The earliest the U.S. Treasury might exhaust its borrowing authority is October 18... McConnell has now made Schumer an offer that makes it plain to absolutely everyone that Senate Democrats have the time and the power to raise the debt limit through reconciliation."

The Wall Street Journal called it the "debt ceiling deception."

"Democrats keep telling Americans they have the votes and a mandate to pass the biggest tax increase since 1968 and the biggest domestic spending bill ever," the board said. "Yet they also claim they’re helpless to raise the federal debt ceiling without Republican votes... But no one is preventing Democrats from doing their job... The parliamentarian has already said that Democrats can use reconciliation to raise the debt limit, so why won’t they do it?

"As it happens, Mr. Biden gave that game away when he was asked Monday why Democrats aren’t using reconciliation," the board wrote. "'There is a process' that 'would require literally up to hundreds of votes,' Mr. Biden explained... In other words, Mr. Biden admits that Democrats could raise the limit via reconciliation, but then they’d also have to take difficult votes on many issues on the Senate floor. Some of those votes might be unpopular. Mr. Biden is admitting that the reason is political—that Democrats want Republicans to spare them from having to take those tough votes."

In The New York Post, John Podhoretz pointed to 2006, when Democrats opposed a debt ceiling increase to punish Republicans.

"And all the major players this time were there that time. One such Democrat casting a vote against raising the debt ceiling was current Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Hypocrite-NY)," he wrote. "And what of the president? Here’s what Joe Biden, then a senator, said in 2006: 'Because this massive accumulation of debt was predicted, because it was foreseeable, because it was unnecessary, because it was the result of willful and reckless disregard for the warnings that were given . . . I am voting against the debt-limit increase.' Oh, and here was Barack Obama in 2006: 'The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. . . . I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.'

"Why are Democrats raining fire and brimstone down on Republican heads when they know this is a game they’ve played themselves? Simple. Democrats can raise the debt limit without a single Republican vote, but only if they use the process known as reconciliation," Podhoretz explained. "When you use reconciliation to pass a bill, you have to face multiple amendments to the bill on the floor of the Senate. This process has come to be known as a 'vote-a-rama.' Democrats know Republicans will use the vote-a-rama to force them to vote on bills they would prefer not to cast an up-or-down, yes-or-no on — matters like police funding, or support for critical race theory, or support for oil pipelines."


What the left is saying.

The left is arguing that McConnell got out over his skis, and now he has to backpedal.

In The New York Times, Gail Collins said it looked as if "things might go the other way" for a moment.

"But at nearly the last minute, Mitch McConnell decided he’d graciously allow the Senate Democrats to pass an extremely modest, very short-term debt limit extension," Collins wrote. "What brought McConnell around? Do you think he’s been reminding himself, while brushing his teeth at night, of the last time his party worked with Democrats on the debt ceiling and got cooperation?... Is it possible that while donning his pajamas, he recalled that a vast, vast amount of the debt we’re worried about — nearly $8 trillion worth — was run up under the presidency of one Donald Trump?

"Nah, just fluff the pillows," she wrote. "This deficit fight is far from over. The Republicans, following McConnell’s lead, are going to keep pretending that borrowing the money to pay the government’s bills is a new phenomenon invented to support Joe Biden’s agenda... One of the deeply ironic aspects of McConnell’s sudden demand that the Democrats be forced to raise the debt limit with as many difficult votes as possible, is his own enormous affection for accomplishing his goals in the equivalent of a legislative closet... Clearly a guy who wants to be remembered for inaction was going to have a lot of fun not helping the Democrats keep the economy from collapsing."

E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote that thanks to McConnell, even Biden is losing faith in the filibuster.

"No one in Washington disputes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s cleverness, his understanding of Senate rules or his skill at tying Democrats in political and procedural knots," Dionne wrote. "But this time, the Kentucky Republican’s cleverness may have caught up with him. By risking economic havoc in refusing to give Democrats a clean chance to suspend the debt ceiling, McConnell may destroy the very arrangements that have afforded him so much power.

"Until this week, McConnell could count on President Biden’s affection for Senate traditions to keep in place a filibuster that vastly enhances the minority party’s power by requiring 60 votes to pass most measures, and not the simple majority our Constitution’s authors envisioned," he added. "But late Tuesday, Biden met McConnell’s hardball with some hardball of his own. Asked by a reporter if Democrats should consider altering the filibuster rules to get a debt-ceiling vote through, the president replied: 'Oh, I think that’s a real possibility.' ... By Wednesday afternoon, McConnell seemed to feel the heat. To take pressure off his caucus, he offered Democrats a path to raise the debt ceiling temporarily into December. Senate Democrats saw the move as McConnell blinking."

In CNN, Joe Lockhart wrote that "McConnell blinked."

"This time [Republicans] didn't even bother to give a real reason," Lockhart wrote. "They are boldly saying they want only Democrats to vote for raising the limit so every Republican can say they voted against it. Senators Tom Tillis and Josh Hawley, among others, made clear Wednesday that this is all about blaming the Democrats, not about paying our bills. Another potential credit downgrade, a stock market plunge or a worldwide financial crisis are all worth it if it inflicts political damage on President Joe Biden and the Democrats.

"It's more than likely Republicans in the end will make some sort of deal that keeps us from falling off the fiscal cliff," he concluded. "But the relevance of this debate is that it makes plain what Republican leaders are all about: not making the country stronger or more prosperous, but simply inflicting as much damage as they can on the current President — whatever the consequences for the rest of us."


My take.

Whoops!

I think the read that McConnell got a little bit out over his skis here is accurate. I also think it can co-exist with the fact that Democrats are fibbing about what they can and can't do about it.

Let's start there: the Senate Parliamentarian has made it clear Democrats could pass a debt limit increase without disrupting the process of their reconciliation bill. Punchbowl News, an insider newsletter for all things Congress, reported it this way: “According to the parliamentarian’s office, Democrats could [raise the debt ceiling through reconciliation] without impacting the existing reconciliation package. That legislation would stay on its own separate track and not lose its privilege in the Senate, meaning it can’t be filibustered and would only require a majority vote for approval." Pretty clear cut.

Everything the conservative writers argued above is also true: Democrats are not insisting on Republican votes because they fear defaulting on the debt. They're insisting on Republican votes because without them they'll have to raise the debt limit through reconciliation, it'll be a monster distraction, and Republicans will pummel them with amendments to get them on the record as supporting things that are very unpopular in swing districts. So, there you have it.

But don't think for a moment the calculation isn't political on the Republican side, too. This opposition is not about fiscal responsibility. It's about politics. Republicans don't just want to force tough votes on Democrats — they don't want to be seen as supporting the Democratic agenda in any way. And that's what this is really about: Showing their base they'll do whatever is necessary to undermine the president and slow things down in Congress. The calculation is just as cynical and just as political as what Democrats are doing. And that's where McConnell made his mistake.

In seeing the debt ceiling vote in a vacuum, he figured Republicans would win politically. Democrats control everything, so if the worst-case happens and we default on the debt, they'll get the blame. If they raise the debt limit without Republicans, they have to take the tough votes and they'll get framed as fiscally irresponsible. What he didn't imagine was that their patience would wear so thin with his political maneuvering that they might just blow up the filibuster and pass the debt ceiling without reconciliation, meaning no damaging votes and no dealing with Republicans’ political traps. And that is when he blinked.

We have it on good authority from multiple sources that the filibuster threat was at the heart of McConnell's offer, and everything we know about him would support that hypothesis. I certainly buy it. Democrats might still face a tough debt ceiling vote in December, but by then they could have $4 trillion of Democratic priorities passed and most Americans will be tuning out for the holidays anyway — an ideal time to cast a meaningless vote on police funding in the middle of the night that may or may not be used against you in a political ad a year later.

Of course, all this clarifies what I said a month ago: We should just abolish the debt ceiling. It's a completely meaningless political cudgel that we'll never hit because the consequences are far too grave. So now its only purpose is to be used in moments like this: Games of political chicken where the only people who are going to truly lose are us. If we want to rein in spending we can find a new way. The debt ceiling should go for good — or just be raised to such an astronomical number we never have to deal with it again.


Your questions, answered.

Q: I know cash welfare has been wildly unpopular for many decades. However, with the new report showing that government assistance, both stimulus checks and unemployment, has lifted millions out of poverty, I’m wondering do you think we will see any changes in regards to increased welfare? Will cash government assistance become more positively viewed by U.S. citizens?

— Shelley, Columbus, Ohio

Tangle: Definitely. One thing I think we learned from 2020 was just how popular (and attention-grabbing) cash to citizens is. Andrew Yang got loads of free press for making it the heart of his presidential campaign, and even though he never got much traction in the race there's good reason to believe it was due to his inexperience, not his policy proposals. More Americans still oppose (54%) than support (46%) universal basic income, but cash government assistance is clearly popular not just when it comes in the form of stimulus checks, but also as child tax credits.

The biggest thing to understand, though, is that the divide is not so much political as it is related to age. In the same 2020 Pew poll cited above, 67% of Americans under the age of 30 supported UBI while just 33% opposed it. That support includes 41% of Republicans aged 18 to 34, even though Republicans make up the overwhelming share of opposition on the whole.

Yang also demonstrated some simple, effective political messaging: The government sucks at everything besides cutting checks. So rather than put that money through the bureaucracy of some new aid program rife for waste and logistical issues, why not just write checks for Americans? For those who believe the government should have an effective social safety net, I think that proposition resonates across party lines.


A story that matters.

The Covid-19 Delta wave appears to be falling behind us. Cases have dropped 22% over the past two weeks — though we're still seeing 102,000 new cases per day. There was a time when that number would have boggled the mind, but now it represents a serious slow down from where we were just a few weeks ago. Deaths and hospitalizations are also falling, meaning the worst of this wave may truly be behind us, even as some 1,800 Americans still die from Covid-19 every day. The question is: What happens now? In some countries, after Delta "burned out," overall cases fell precipitously, to near zero. But in other places, it kept spreading slowly and steadily, and still is today. Axios has a handy map on how things are going.


Numbers.

  • 11. The number of days until it’s expected we will default on our debt if the limit is not raised.
  • 39%. The percentage of Americans who said they would blame both parties if we default on our debt.
  • 31%. The percentage of Americans who said they would blame Democrats if we default on our debt.
  • 20%. The percentage of Americans who said they would blame Republicans if we default on our debt.
  • 11%. The percentage who said they don't know or don't have an opinion.
  • 5,717,770,279. The national debt in 1917, when the debt ceiling was created ($5.7 billion).
  • 28,848,041,542,421. The national debt as of this writing ($28.8 trillion).

Have a nice day.

Yesterday, the World Health Organization approved the first-ever malaria vaccine. Malaria kills about 500,000 people a year, around half of them children living in Africa. The new vaccine is not perfect, experts say, but it will turn the tide and significantly reduce death in places that have been hurt most by the parasite. One estimate suggests it could save tens of thousands of children each year. Along with being the first-ever malaria vaccine, it's also the first-ever vaccine against any parasitic disease. The New York Times has the story.


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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