As the U.S. Hurtles Toward a Debt Crisis, What Does McConnell Want?

Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, has a long record of tying debt ceiling increases to policy demands. But with a catastrophic default two weeks away, he has yet to make any.

WASHINGTON — In March 2006, as the government veered dangerously close to a default, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the No. 2 Republican, let the Bush White House know he was two votes short of what he needed to raise the legal limit on federal borrowing.

Andrew H. Card Jr., then the White House chief of staff, began working the phones. He soon found two Democrats willing break ranks and vote to put the legislation over the top. But Mr. McConnell was holding out for something else entirely, hoping to extract concessions from President George W. Bush as the price for uniting Republicans around lifting the limit.

“I don’t need your damned votes,” he snapped at Mr. Card. He lifted the debt ceiling with Republicans only.

Mr. Card never learned what the Senate leader wanted, but he tells the story for a reason: Mr. McConnell has long used the periodic need to raise the government’s borrowing limit as a moment of leverage to secure a policy win, as have leaders of both parties.

But two weeks before a potentially catastrophic default, Mr. McConnell has yet to reveal what he wants, telling President Biden in a letter on Monday, “We have no list of demands.”

Instead, he appears to want to sow political chaos for Democrats while insulating himself and other Republicans from an issue that has the potential to divide them.

Mr. McConnell has said the government must not be allowed to stop paying its debts; he has also said he will not let any Republicans vote to raise the limit, while moving repeatedly to block Democrats from doing so themselves. Instead, he has prescribed a path forward for Democrats: Use a complicated budget process known as reconciliation to maneuver around a Republican filibuster that he refuses to lift.

Asked what he wanted, that was his answer: “As I have said for two months, I want them do it through reconciliation.”

Hardball tactics by Republicans on the debt ceiling are not new. Showdowns in 1995 and 1996 shut down the government but also helped foster a balanced-budget agreement. A new Republican House majority in 2011 pushed the government so close to default that Standard & Poor’s downgraded once-unassailable U.S. debt, but it also produced the Budget Control Act, which crimped spending for years.

Mr. McConnell, second from right, hoped to get concessions from President George W. Bush in 2006 before raising the borrowing limit.Credit…Alex Wong/Getty Images

The 2006 showdown has been used by both parties as an object lesson. Mr. McConnell has pointed to it to show that partisanship is nothing new; among the “no” votes on the debt ceiling increase that year were Senators Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Barack Obama. Democrats point to what they say is the more obvious lesson: They let the vote go through on a narrow majority, with no filibuster.

The same can be said for partisan debt ceiling increases passed in May 2003 and November 2004, which, like the 2006 vote, were set up by a procedural maneuver that required the consent of every Democrat who then voted against them.

This year was different: Republicans filibustered one measure to raise the debt limit and keep the government funded. On Wednesday, they are expected to block another measure, passed by the House, that does only one thing: lift the debt ceiling.

“There’s no bargaining,” said Senator Angus King of Maine, a moderate independent. “They’re just stamping their feet and saying no.”

He added, “It’s a qualitatively new level of irresponsibility.”

With no overt policy demands to be met as the price for cooperation, Democrats say the 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, especially an expansive bill to combat climate change and reweave the fraying social safety net.

“Democrats are preparing another staggering taxing and spending spree without any Republican input or support,” Mr. McConnell wrote on Monday. “Bipartisanship is not a light switch that Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer may flip on to borrow money and flip off to spend it.”

Given that the switch is currently off, he argues, Democrats have only one path forward: The Senate Budget Committee must produce a resolution that includes instructions to raise the debt ceiling, which must then pass the House and Senate and weather 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 filibustered but would again have to survive an onslaught of politically difficult votes. Any proposal could be considered, and if any were adopted, the measure would be forced back to the House.

And they have 14 days to do it.

Democrats are left to seethe at their opponents’ tactics.

“McConnell is singularly focused on winning control of the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections, full stop,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland and a longtime budget expert. “To his mind, that means using every tactic at his disposal to cause President Biden to fail, even if that hurts the country.”

Another factor might be at play: Mr. McConnell cannot control his members and is reluctant to risk the ire of Republican base voters. Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri have made no secret of their presidential ambitions, with uncompromising stands that appeal to the base.

Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, is not willing to risk alienating the party’s base by voting in favor of raising the debt ceiling.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Even if Mr. McConnell wanted to allow a debt ceiling increase to come to a majority vote, a single senator could delay action. And 10 Republicans would be needed to cut off a filibuster led by Mr. Cruz or Mr. Hawley; those votes might be hard to find.

Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, said “40 or 45” Republicans would be willing to agree to allow a debt ceiling increase to come a vote, as long as they did not have to cast a public ballot. The problem, he said, was the other five.

Understand the U.S. Debt Ceiling

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What is the debt limit? The debt limit is a cap on the total amount of money that the federal government is authorized to borrow via U.S. Treasury bills and savings bonds to fulfill its financial obligations. Because the U.S. runs budget deficits, it must borrow huge sums of money to pay its bills.

When will the debt limit be breached? Technically, the U.S. hit its debt limit at the end of July. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has been using “extraordinary measures” since then to delay a default. Yellen warned of “catastrophic” consequences if the debt limit isn’t raised before a default, which the Treasury estimates would happen on Oct. 18.

What are those consequences? Ms. Yellen told Congress that inaction could lead to a self-inflicted economic recession and a financial crisis. She also said that Social Security payments could be delayed, soldiers would not know when their paychecks were coming and interest rates on credit cards, car loans and mortgages would rise.

How much debt does the U.S. currently have? The national debt now stands at $28.43 trillion, according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s live tracker. The borrowing cap is set at $28.4 trillion, leaving the government with negligible wiggle room.

Why does the U.S. limit its borrowing? According to the Constitution, Congress must authorize borrowing. The debt limit was instituted in the early 20th century so the Treasury did not need to ask for permission each time it needed to issue bonds to pay bills.

Do other countries do it this way? Denmark also has a debt limit, but it is set so high that raising it is generally not an issue. Most other countries do not. In Poland, public debt cannot exceed 60 percent of gross domestic product.

Why is raising the debt limit so difficult? For many years, raising the debt ceiling was routine. But as the political environment has become more polarized, Congress has been playing an increasingly dangerous political game over the debt ceiling.

Would it be a good idea to do away with the debt limit? It often seems that the risk of an accidental default outweighs any fiscal responsibility that the debt limit encourages. However, it would take an act of Congress to do away with the debt limit, and finding agreement there is never easy.

“It has to be everyone,” Mr. Blunt said, predicting that the debt ceiling vote on Wednesday would be filibustered again.

Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, seemed almost relieved that Mr. McConnell had not put Democrats in the position to give in to conservative policy demands to stave off a Congress-imposed economic catastrophe.

“I have learned over many years that we cannot negotiate over things like whether or not to destroy the economy,” Mr. Schatz said, adding, “American politics has gone crazy because one party has gone crazy.”

With every passing day, the crisis becomes more unavoidable. Each day Democrats decline to give in to Mr. McConnell’s demands to use the reconciliation process makes it that much more difficult for the maneuver to be completed in time to avoid a default. And each day the Democrats demand that Republicans blink, they reply that Democrats are to blame for not using the process when they had time.

“You still have time before you get to the edge of the cliff,” Mr. Card said of the current debt-ceiling showdown. “And that time should be used for dialogue.”

How will it end? One option that Mr. Van Hollen said Democrats might have no choice but to pursue is changing the filibuster rules so the borrowing limit increase, and any in the future, can pass with 50 votes.

Mr. King, who has been unenthusiastic about changing the rules, said he had to agree.

“I have been very reluctant for nine years about modifying the filibuster rule, especially when it comes to policy, but this has nothing to do with policy,” he said. “This is about keeping the United States and world out of what could be a severe recession.”

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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