Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, friends and former staffers have said, is used to being the occasional punching bag for many members of his own party—whether fellow senators, popular conservative radio hosts or rank-and-file Republican voters. The deal he struck with New York Democrat majority leader Chuck Schumer this week has drawn most of the usual critics. 18 deadline—the point at which, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the US would default on its debt if the debt limit was not raised to $480 billion—McConnell and Schumer agreed to extend the debt limit until December. Happened.
“Folding Mitch McConnell!” Former President Donald Trump urged other GOP senators “not to vote for this terrible deal.” “Absolute dedication,” said Lindsey Graham, South Carolina. Democrats happily agreed. “McConnell bowed,” said Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Critics may want to hold their fire until we see what happens in December. According to McConnell’s aides, the minority leader had very good reasons for negotiating the deal. He says it adds to the all-important political points that have now been laid before him as GOP leader, which will benefit Republicans in a midterm election year. they include:
Democrats opposed using the Senate’s “conciliation process” (which allows financial-related legislation to pass with only 51 votes) to raise the debt limit because they claimed they had enough. There’s no time. It was too complicated. A process to be done before October 18, he said. (And it really should have been one of the fastest reconciliation processes ever.) Well, McConnell responded, We’ll give you more time. We’ll save the accepted American people from any near-term crisis, while certainly solving the majority’s excuse that they lack time to address the debt ceiling through reconciliation “
Why would McConnell accept it? He believes Democrats are playing a losing hand politically, over debt limits and, more broadly, on their highly ambitious spending plans. He wants to force them to vote using conciliation, and with the December deadline, that’s what they will have to do. The vote will also come just a month after the Virginia gubernatorial race, which polls show is a dead summer. Republican victory in a state Joe Biden won by ten points last year would be a major blow to Democrats, making the debt-ceiling vote more painful. So for McConnell, it wasn’t a get out of jail card for Democrats on the debt limit: it was a very temporary relief.
2) A weak president and a warring party
The debt ceiling controversy comes as Joe Biden’s popularity is declining. Just nine months into his presidency, a new Quinnipiac poll this week has lowered his approval rating to 38 percent, and shows the president underwater on every major issue. The Democratic Party is plagued by internal divisions. Progressives and moderates are at war over a $3.5 trillion bill that deals with everything from climate change to free community college for workers; Meanwhile, progressives are holding a $1.2 trillion “bilateral” infrastructure bill hostage to a massive spending bill.
Democrats agree that the details of the spending plan are popular with most Americans, but recognize that the size of the bill—it would be the largest spending bill in American history, even New Deal and Great Society legislation have also been passed in the last century. become a story That, partly because two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kirsten Cinemas of Arizona, are leaning too publicly on the $3.5 trillion price tag. Democrats want to use reconciliation to pass the bill, but can’t get the required 51 votes without those two senators. (This has angered the progressive wing of the party, who have begun publicly harassing both Sinima and Munchkin.)
McConnell wants to see if and how Democrats settle their differences. He, aides say, in constant contact with both Munchkin and the cinema, is taking their temperature on the spending bill and, critically, where they stand on maintaining the 60-vote filibuster rule in the Senate. Democrats had begun pushing for a new, narrowly tailored filibuster rule that would have allowed them to pass an increase in the debt limit without Republican votes. Pressure was mounting on both Munchkin and the cinema, and some Democrats are convinced McConnell was worried he would get involved. “The filibuster forced him to cave in,” said Democratic Senator Chris Koons of Delaware.
McConnell raised the issue in a closed-door meeting with the Republican caucus on Wednesday afternoon. But how worried he was is not clear. Manchin later told reporters that “that was never going to happen,” meaning he remained entirely on the 60-vote filibuster rule. It appears that McConnell believes this will remain the case—even when this entire practice is repeated at the end of the year.
McConnell’s maneuver means Democrats will fight over spending bills for two more months, and cannot use the “we don’t have time” excuse to refuse a reconciliation vote on debt limits in December. With Biden’s growing weakness, there is growing Democratic alarm about next year’s midterm election. Gleeful Republicans are beginning to anticipate a historic blow in both the House and Senate. If Democrats can’t work out their internal differences and pass something, they’ll have nothing to run for next year. But even if the sweeping spending bill comes down to the $1.5 trillion level Manchin publicly committed in July, McConnell doesn’t believe it will significantly shift public opinion in his favor.
3) Blaming the Democrats
Well-sourced Wall Streeters say the deal McConnell struck with Schumer had more to do with the mega spending bill than the filibuster. In a note to investors Wednesday evening, David Bansen, managing partner of the Bansen Group, wrote, “I believe Sen. McConnell got something out of Senator Manchin and cinema in return.” “I see Senator Manchin now reiterating his $1.5 trillion cap on the new bill when he started talking about going higher. McConnell’s maneuver here has a lot to do with the reconciliation bill.”
McConnell’s colleagues say this is true. But that was not the only thing. Under the rules governing reconciliation, Democrats could be forced to assign a dollar value to the new debt limit level, more directly forcing them to suspend the limit until a future date, rather than higher debt. can be done. And Republican Senator Mike Braun of Indiana told reporters Wednesday afternoon, there won’t be “a Republican fingerprint on it.” A senior Republican Senate staffer who is not authorized to speak on the record says, “What stuff are attack ads made in 2022.”
If, at the end of the year, McConnell leans back and does not raise the debt limit to Democrats in a party line reconciliation vote, today’s critics will be justified. But McConnell’s aides are not worried. The Republican leader likes to say he plays the “long game”—that’s the title of his 2016 memoir—but the game isn’t that long either. Sometimes the “long game” lasts only a few months.