What does Mitch McConnell want in the debt ceiling deadlock?

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WASHINGTON – In March 2006, as the government approached dangerously close to default, Republican No.2 Sen. Mitch McConnell told Bush’s White House that he lacked two votes to raise the legal limit on federal borrowing.

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 first. But instead of thanking him, the Senate leader got angry. Mr. McConnell had hoped 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 Kentucky Republican 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, now minority leader, has yet to reveal what he wants, telling President Biden in a letter on 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 raise the debt ceiling, while preventing Democrats from doing it themselves.

He plans to do so again on Wednesday, when the Senate votes on whether to pass legislation to raise the debt ceiling until December 2022. If a Republican objects, it will take 60 votes to go. forward, which means 10 GOP Senators must join Democrats to do so. No one expects these Republican votes to materialize.

Mr McConnell has prescribed only one alternative for the Democrats: to use a complicated budget process known as reconciliation to bypass the Republican obstruction he refuses to lift.

“They have to do it, they have the time to do it, and the sooner they do it the better,” he said on Tuesday.

He even appeared to taunt the Democrats. A day after Mr. Biden told Republicans they “must stop playing Russian roulette with the American economy,” Mr. McConnell, in his unmoved signature, looked at television cameras on Capitol Hill for ” implore “the Democrats” not to play Russian roulette with the American economy.

Republicans’ tough debt ceiling tactics are not new. The clashes of 1995 and 1996 paralyzed the government, but also helped push for an agreement on a balanced budget. A new Republican House majority 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 increases voted in May 2003 and November 2004.

This year is different: Republicans not only refuse to vote for the measure, but they create a barrier to prevent Democrats from pushing it through themselves.

“There is still time for 10 Republicans to join us, no matter what some far-right extremists think,” pleaded Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, majority leader, the day before Wednesday’s vote to move on to his debt ceiling bill. .

Senator Angus King of Maine, a moderate independent, seemed disheartened. “There is no negotiation. 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 for Republicans, chaos is the point – or at least a vague hope that the latest legislative crisis will somehow undermine. another the Democrats’ ability to fulfill unrelated parts of Mr. Biden’s tenure. program, in particular a broad 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. “Two-party politics 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 lift the debt ceiling, which would then go to the Senate, where it could not be obstructed but would have to survive a wave of votes again. politically difficult. Any proposal could be considered, and if one were adopted, the measure would be sent back to the House.

And they have less than 14 days to do so.

Democrats are left to boil over 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.”

Mr. McConnell has another powerful political motivation for his position. He cannot control his membership and is hesitant to risk the wrath of Republican base voters by relying on senators to smooth the way for an increase in the debt ceiling. Even if Mr. McConnell wanted to allow someone to get a majority vote, a single senator could stop him. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has made no secret of his presidential ambitions, said on Tuesday that he would block any such deal, even one aimed at speeding up the process Mr. McConnell is calling for.

Mr McConnell appeared to recognize his own delicate political stance on Tuesday when he said ending the threat of filibuster “would require obtaining the consent of every Republican” and added: “I can’t imagine that occur”.

Sen. Roy Blunt, Republican from Missouri, said “40 or 45” Republicans would be willing to accept an increase in the debt ceiling in a vote, as long as they did not have to vote publicly. The problem, he said, is the other five.

Hawaii Democrat Senator Brian Schatz seemed almost relieved that Mr McConnell did not put Democrats in a position where they would have to give in to the demands of conservative politics to avoid a congressional 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 less and less preventable. 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 some time before you reach the edge of the cliff,” Mr 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 has said Democrats may have to pursue – and which Mr Biden called a “real possibility” on Tuesday – is to change the filibuster rules so that increasing the limit on loan, and any other in the future, 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.

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