Congressional Democrats, in the House anyway, are looking ahead this week to consider what to do about Mitch McConnell and his band of nihilists in the Senate when it comes to the next fight over the debt ceiling. McConnell ended up capitulating on the issue last week, leaving ill feelings toward him among Republicans, which resulted in a toxic declaration of intent from him to President Joe Biden.
“Whether through weakness or an intentional effort to bully his own members, Senator Schumer marched the nation to the doorstep of disaster,” McConnell wrote in his poison pen letter, revising the history of his hostage-taking, as usual. “Embarrassingly, it got to the point where Senators on both sides were pleading for leadership to fill the void and protect our citizens. I stepped up,” he said. More like he stepped in it if you ask his disgruntled conference of Republicans, none of whom—not a single one—actually voted to raise the debt ceiling in the end. He’s expecting eternal gratitude from the president for the fact that after weeks of filibustering, he relented enough to allow a vote to be held on the issue and didn’t blow up the global economy, after all. “Your lieutenants on Capitol Hill now have the time they claimed they lacked to address the debt ceiling through standalone reconciliation, and all the tools to do it. They cannot invent another crisis and ask for my help,” McConnell said.
Okay then, Democrats. Do it. And while you’re doing it, take away the power he’s been wielding since 2011, when he infamously declared that the “default issue” is “a hostage that’s worth ransoming.” A decade of McConnell willing to pull the pin on this particular grenade should be more than enough.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might have finally reached that conclusion herself. She told reporters Tuesday that ceding congressional power on raising the debt limit to the Treasury Department is something to look at. “I do think it has merit,” she said. There’s legislation in the House now that would do just that. It is cosponsored by the powerful chair of the Budget Committee, Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky. (Yarmuth announced his intent to retire after this term, so it would be a fitting final accomplishment for him, finally getting one up on his fellow Kentuckian, McConnell.)
“After everything the American people have been through over the last 19 months and all the progress we have made in our recovery, the last thing we need is a dangerous game of political brinkmanship that will devastate our economy and plunge us into another recession,” said Yarmuth when he and Rep. Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania introduced the bill last week. “It’s time for Republicans to pull the ripcord and support our legislation to implement the McConnell Rule, giving the Treasury Secretary the authority to raise the debt ceiling. We need to get past this politically manufactured crisis and get on with the business of addressing the needs and priorities of the American people.”
That “McConnell Rule,” by the way refers back to that fight with President Obama in 2011, when an agreement between McConnell and the White House gave the administration the power to raise the debt limit by a maximum of $1.2 trillion, but gave Congress the ability to reject the increase. That veto power, however, comes with a 60-vote threshold in the Senate, meaning it would require bipartisan support. It’s a good trick, one that even Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema could get behind because “60 votes” and “bipartisan.”
“That seems to have some appeal to both sides of the aisle because of the consequences to people of not lifting it,” Pelosi said. Not that any Senate Republicans would admit to there being any appeal to them right now, even if the whole thing was McConnell’s idea in the first place. It’s hard to imagine a more toxic GOP than the one we had in Obama’s first term, but then came Trump.
This is a good idea for getting rid of the whole threat of the debt ceiling, and fun because Yarmuth can rub McConnell’s nose in it a little. But it’s not necessarily the most effective way to get it done at the moment. That might be to actually concur with McConnell, and do it in budget reconciliation. Not that that wouldn’t potentially also involve a fight with Manchin and/or Sinema, but the stakes on that could bring them around.
There are a couple of ways that mooting the issue could be done in reconciliation. The argument against it from Democrats has been that the rules of reconciliation require a number be attached to the hike. But that’s not necessarily the case. It could be done by saying that the “number” attached equals the nation’s debt, thus automatically indexing the government’s borrowing authority to what it owes and making this a non-issue. That might require overruling the Parliamentarian, the Senate staffer who advises on the rules, but for such an issue as momentous as this, it’s definitely worth it.
Here’s another idea that could go into reconciliation from former Senate staffer Ira Goldman, with the added fun of putting it all on Republicans and the former guy.
That would be about $7.8 trillion, so that would definitely work, too. And it would be really, really satisfying. It would be worth Schumer and Pelosi giving in to McConnell’s demand that they include the debt ceiling in budget reconciliation, if they could do it in a way that both humiliates him and takes it away as a weapon—forever.
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