WASHINGTON — Early last year, one of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s longest rivals offered a lesson about why the Kentucky Republican is unfazed by his critics whenever he digs in on a political strategy.
“The people in Kentucky who know him understand that he can’t be shamed into changing,” Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., who has worked with and clashed with McConnell for more than 50 years, said in an interview.
That was January 2020, and the context focused on the decision by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to hold articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump over his actions toward Ukraine to try to pressure McConnell into agreeing to hold an expansive Senate trial that would include witnesses.
Now, almost two years later, Democrats have set up a similar type of strategy that, if successful, will force Republicans to accept their fair share of the national debt that now tops $28 trillion. If this strategy fails, the federal government could run out of funding authority and enter another congressionally forced shutdown — the fourth in less than a decade — and create a debt crisis that could rattle global financial markets.
McConnell has declared that Senate Republicans will not vote to increase the Treasury’s authority to continue borrowing, which is the same as voting to allow a default. As he has done before, McConnell has essentially created a new rule out of whole cloth to justify his actions.
“Let me make it perfectly clear. The country must never default. The debt ceiling will need to be raised. But who does that depends on who the American people elect,” McConnell told Punchbowl News on Tuesday, acknowledging he will vote for a policy outcome he says he doesn’t want to occur.
Because Democrats control the White House and both branches of Congress, his argument goes, they alone are responsible for safeguarding the government’s creditworthiness and preventing a potential economic calamity.
No such rule exists, nor has it ever.
In fact, almost every time the debt ceiling has been lifted, it has been done in bipartisan fashion under the regular Senate order that requires at least 60 votes to end debate on the legislation.
In today’s 50-50 Senate, that means at least 10 Republicans have to join Democrats to approve a new debt limit or, as has been done in recent years, suspend that law for a few years.
Instead, McConnell says he is vehemently opposed to the more than $6 trillion proposed agenda President Biden has pushed on Capitol Hill and is now urging Democrats to use a parliamentary budget move to deal with the debt issue on their own.
The goal is purely political.
McConnell says he doesn’t want to breach the debt limit. He just wants to keep GOP hands clean of all this new spending in advance of the 2022 midterm elections.
Senate Republicans are so united behind McConnell that even their most centrist cohorts are holding back support for the Democratic plan to pass a new suspension of the debt limit tagged on to a bill to keep federal agencies functioning past the Sept. 30 deadline.
“The Democrats have added enormous amounts of debt, including the $1.9 trillion package, now $3.5 trillion on top of that, so they bear the responsibility for increasing the debt limit,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told reporters this week.
Collins’ remark mischaracterizes the debt limit and ignores her own votes for policies that did or would increase the debt during both the Trump and Biden administrations. The debt limit only applies to paying for the expenses of policies already enacted, not to legislative proposals that have not been signed into law. Even if it did, Collins voted in August for a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that would add to the government’s debt, a point she has not made in defending her plan to vote to allow a default.
The last time the debt crisis hit such an impasse, in late July 2011, the financial markets went into a tailspin until a pair of seasoned Washington hands stepped in and negotiated a settlement: McConnell and then-Vice President Biden.
Before that date, the hypocrisy over the debt limit had been the purview of both parties. When Democrats were out of power, they would vote against raising the debt limit and blame the Republican president for not doing more to keep the debt in check. Republicans did the same when in a similar position.
But this political game became more dangerous with the rise of the tea party movement early last decade because of the willingness of many House Republicans to actually force a default, not just play games with their votes.
Democrats are determined to break the Republican blockade by exposing how their threats could lead to both a government shutdown and a potential default.
“Nobody gets to hold the American economy hostage. Right now, we’re in the middle of it, Mitch McConnell trying to establish a double standard,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in an interview Tuesday.
White House officials noted that McConnell, as majority leader in 2019, shepherded a massive budget deal to the finish line that included a two-year suspension of the debt limit.
“If you look to just two years ago, he argued that the failing to vote to raise the debt limit would quote, be a disaster and, quote, put our full faith and credit at risk. We agree with that. And now he’s against a vote,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday.
McConnell has done this before and withstood plenty of pressure from Democrats.
In 2019, as Yarmuth predicted, McConnell never gave in on demands for witnesses and quickly ushered Trump through to an acquittal in the impeachment trial.
In 2016, after Antonin Scalia died and left a Supreme Court vacancy, McConnell declared there was a tradition that in a presidential election year, no such vacancies should be filled, even though Barack Obama had another 10 months left in his presidency.
He briefly added a proviso that this custom would shift if the same party held the Senate and presidency — an assertion with no real foundation, but one he latched onto a year ago when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and left vacant a Supreme Court seat. McConnell filled that seat, with Justice Amy Coney Barrett, just days ahead of the 2020 election.
These McConnell machinations drive Democrats crazy and often lead to weeks or months of battling over the hypocrisy in his decisions, but that’s an area where he is quite comfortable.
As they argue about Senate rules and procedure, McConnell happily points out other areas where Democrats have been hypocritical and the larger public tends to tune out the arcane parliamentary debate.
“I think it’s important, before everybody rushes off to this frenzy of congressional procedure, to understand what’s at stake,” Wyden said. “And what’s at stake is whether or not Mitch McConnell can impose a double standard: Take the economy hostage, and reverse something that just in the last few years the Congress had really said, ‘Look we are in it together.’ “
No one is certain of the exact timing of all this. The latest estimates, from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and private market analysts, suggested the government would run out of maneuvers to juggle the books by late October.
“We will pass a debt limit [increase]. We don’t know when,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., told reporters. “We don’t think that the Treasury is up against a wall yet.”
But the Democrats plan to attach the debt-ceiling issue to the legislation to keep the government funded, a deadline that hits Sept. 30. If Republicans block that measure, over the debt issue, the government would shut down the next day.
Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, acknowledged that McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have had no real discussions and, given his committee, no direction about how to avoid a shutdown.
Democrats acknowledge, for now, that they have no real fallback plan if McConnell and Senate Republicans hold the line and drive the nation into a shutdown or a debt crisis — other than trying to shame McConnell into upholding his previous positions.
As Yarmuth noted in January 2020, that’s a very difficult hand to play regardless of the stakes.
“Mitch is just not going to be pressured,” he said then.