McConnell, Schumer in verbal tango over debt limit agreement

McConnell, Schumer in verbal tango over debt limit agreement
© Greg Nash

Sens. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Biden, Senate GOP take step toward infrastructure deal as other plans hit speed bumps Senate GOP to give Biden infrastructure counteroffer next week Masks shed at White House; McConnell: 'Free at last' MORE (R-Ky.) and Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill Cheney sideshow distracts from important battle over Democrats' partisan voting bill MORE (D-N.Y.) battled on Tuesday over who really gained leverage from last week’s shocking deal between President Trump and congressional Democrats.

Both leaders appeared to be laying down early markers for December, when a new agreement must be brokered to keep the government open.


McConnell, the Senate majority leader, said Democrats gained little from the deal with Trump, insisting the short-term extension of the debt limit would not give the minority leverage on the GOP when it seeks to fund the government.

Saying the debt-limit vote could be punted until next year, McConnell dismissed Democratic boasts about leverage, telling The New York Times on Monday that Democrats “spiked the ball in the end zone a little too early.”

McConnell said the Treasury Department’s “extraordinary measures” to prevent the government from spending beyond its borrowing limit meant there would be no vote to raise the debt ceiling until 2018, depriving Democrats of leverage.

“I can confidently predict that there will not be a connection between the debt ceiling and the spending decisions in December,” McConnell told reporters at his weekly briefing.

“I crafted the amendment and … it does not eliminate extraordinary measures, which the secretary of the Treasury has always had, in connection with the debt ceiling.”

Schumer, the Senate minority leader, quickly dismissed his rival, stating that Democrats would have leverage in December and whenever the debt ceiling bill came due.

“If they used extraordinary measures to extend the debt ceiling there would be two cliffs instead of one,” he said during a conference call after McConnell’s remarks to the Times were published.

“I don’t know why they would want to do that. Sure doesn’t benefit them and it doesn’t benefit the country.”

McConnell and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBiden's relationship with top House Republican is frosty The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney Budowsky: Liz Cheney vs. conservatives in name only MORE (R-Wis.) went to the White House last week offering an 18-month extension of the debt ceiling, something also advanced by Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinDemocrats justified in filibustering GOP, says Schumer Yellen provides signature for paper currency Biden's name will not appear on stimulus checks, White House says MORE.

After Democrats refused to agree to it, they offered a six-month extension. Democrats countered with a three-month extension, which Trump then accepted.

GOP aides were left flummoxed by Trump’s move, and Republican lawmakers questioned the president’s wisdom.

Trump, however, seemed pleased with the deal and the ensuing coverage in the media.

Democrats think they will have leverage whether the debt vote comes with the spending bill or without it.

They are betting that if the government shuts down, Republicans will get the blame given their majorities in Congress and Trump’s presence in the White House.

And they think that Trump and the GOP will also want to avoid a failure to lift the debt ceiling — and that Democratic votes will be needed to do so.

“I can’t imagine why they’d want to give us two bites at the apple,” said a Senate Democratic aide.

Democrats are widely expected to press for legislation that would allow so-called Dreamers — people who entered the United States illegally as minors — the ability to live and work in the U.S. free from the fear of deportation. Trump has begun to wind down an Obama-era executive action that allows these people to stay in the country and apply for work permits but has publicly backed the prospect of a new law.

Those dynamics have Democrats thinking their leverage will be high ahead of the December talks.

“Many of them are not going to be for a long-term spending bill,” Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinSweeping election reform bill faces Senate buzz saw Police reform talks hit familiar stumbling block Biden's internal polling touts public support for immigration reform MORE (Ill.), the second-ranking Senate Democrat, said on a recent episode of the podcast “Pod Save America.”

“A lot have sworn that they’ll never vote for extending the debt ceiling. The Republicans are going to need Democratic votes. We are in a better, stronger position to make sure our priorities … are included.”

With a slim two-seat majority, McConnell will need to win over at least eight Democratic senators to fund the government. House leadership could also be forced to lean on Democrats to help pass both bills if they can’t win over  conservatives.

Republicans were not embracing McConnell’s claims of leverage on Tuesday.

“I’m not a big fan of debt ceiling fights in election years,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

“At the end of the day, the votes are always there on a debt ceiling. The question is whether you get any concessions, and it’s much harder to get a concession when it’s your own administration,” he added.

A House GOP aide agreed.

“The sooner the better,” the aide said. “Historically, the more we put this off, the worse it will be.”