GOP warns McConnell won’t blink on debt cliff

Sens. John Kennedy (R-La.), Rick Scott and John Thune (R-S.D.)
Greg Nash

Republicans are warning that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) won’t blink as Congress barrels toward dual fiscal debt-shutdown cliffs, with massive economic consequences.

Democrats are seeking to suspend the debt ceiling through 2022, tying it to a short-term government funding bill and disaster relief, in a move aimed at squeezing McConnell and GOP senators by bringing the fight to a head just days before the Oct. 1 deadline for preventing a government shutdown.

It’s set off a high-stakes game of chicken with both the government’s ability to keep its own lights on and the nation’s credit hanging in the balance, because Democrats will need 10 GOP votes to get the bill through the Senate.

As the collision course draws closer, McConnell, even while predicting that there won’t be a default, is showing no signs of swerving.

“We are prepared to support a continuing resolution. … What we’re not prepared to do is to relieve the Democratic president, Democratic House and Democratic Senate from their governing obligation to address the debt ceiling,” McConnell told reporters during a weekly press conference.

Republican senators stress that McConnell isn’t bluffing, saying they’ve seen no signs from him behind the scenes that he’s second-guessing the hard-line strategy or preparing to bargain with Democrats. McConnell has used closed-door caucus meetings to privately pitch GOP senators on opposing a debt ceiling increase.

“He’s been very clear about it. And he certainly has expressed his hope that we would all do that,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) about opposing the debt hike. “I think they’re on their own.”

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) added that McConnell “is not bluffing.”

“On this issue I think Sen. McConnell is going to be like that Missouri mule when it sits down in the mud and refuses to budge,” Kennedy said.

Even as the House debated the government funding-debt ceiling package, House Republicans pointed to the buzz saw awaiting the bill in the Senate and predicted that the House would have to pass another government funding bill before the Oct. 1 deadline to prevent a shutdown.

“Frankly, you have the votes to pass it here, but you know you don’t have them in the Senate. And if any of you think you’re going to break Mitch McConnell on this, good luck with that,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said during a House Rules Committee mark-up.

The fight over the debt ceiling is in many ways a slow-motion legislative train wreck. McConnell first said in July that he didn’t expect that GOP senators would help raise the debt ceiling. The country has never defaulted, and doing so would have catastrophic consequences for the U.S. economy and financial system.

The rhetoric matched what his top lieutenant, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), had been saying for months and comes after Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who chairs the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, got nonbinding language into the conference rules that an increase in the debt ceiling should be offset by spending reforms.

Republicans are fuming over Democrats’ decision to try to pass a $3.5 trillion spending bill on their own and are trying to force them to include a debt suspension in that measure. Republicans believe it would force Democrats to “own” the debt, providing fodder heading into next year’s midterm elections, where they hope to win back the House and Senate.

“If it’s such a great vote for them, they’d be doing it by themselves,” Scott said.

Democrats could raise the nation’s borrowing limit without GOP support if they included it in the $3.5 trillion spending bill because they are using budget reconciliation, which allows them to avoid a filibuster.  But that has drawbacks, including that there’s no guarantee Democrats could have the bill ready in time to line up with the debt ceiling.

Congress previously suspended the debt ceiling in 2019, under then-President Trump. It kicked back in on Aug. 1, but the Treasury Department has been using “extraordinary measures” since then to keep the government solvent.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned congressional leaders that those will likely run out next month. She also made a private appeal to McConnell earlier this month but was rebuffed.

But Democrats, and the White House, want the debt vote to be bipartisan. And while House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) opened the door to Democrats doing it on their own if push came to shove, other Democrats aren’t going there yet.

Senate Democrats are publicly blasting McConnell, noting that they helped put up votes for suspending the debt ceiling under Trump when they were tied to larger spending and budget deals.

“The question is, why is McConnell willing to risk so much in this country to play a political game?” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “Why would one person risk all of this in a blinking contest?”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) added: “C’mon Mitch. Stop playing politics.”

To get the government funding-debt ceiling package through, Senate Democrats will need the support of at least 10 GOP senators in order to break a 60-vote legislative filibuster. If Republicans didn’t filibuster the bill, Democrats would be able to pass it on their own, but conservatives have vowed they will force them to try to meet the higher hurdle on the government funding-debt ceiling package.

They aren’t expected to get it, with at most a handful of GOP senators viewed as in play to support the bill. Kennedy told reporters that he would “probably” vote for the bill, noting that it contains disaster aid that would benefit his home state that has been hard hit by recent hurricanes.

But Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) declined on Tuesday to say how they would vote. Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, was one of four GOP senators who didn’t sign on to a letter last month vowing to oppose the debt ceiling hike, but he told The Hill that he would oppose Democrats’ government funding-debt ceiling fight. 

“I don’t think it will go anywhere,” Shelby said about the House bill. 

What comes after Senate Republicans block the bill is anybody’s guess. 

Republicans say it’s up to Democrats, who will need to determine if they strip out the debt ceiling suspension and try to pass a package that is just the government funding combined with disaster relief and Afghan refugee resettlement funds. 

“It’s up to them to decide what we’re going to do,” Scott said.

But Democrats, when asked the same question, pointed back to McConnell. 

“Well, I’m not sure. I don’t know if McConnell has thought it through. This has never happened,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat.

Asked what the backup plan was, Schumer added: “Ask Leader McConnell.”

Tags Bill Cassidy Charles Schumer Debbie Stabenow Dick Durbin Donald Trump Janet Yellen John Kennedy John Thune Kevin Cramer Lisa Murkowski Mitch McConnell Richard Shelby Tom Cole
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