McConnell looks for way out of debt ceiling box

After taking a hard line and refusing to negotiate with Democrats during the last standoff over the debt limit, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSchumer tees up key Thursday vote on debt deal House approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Senate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale MORE (R-Ky.) is quietly looking for a way to get the issue resolved without another high-profile battle.

McConnell has a number of reasons to find a way out.

He doesn’t want another battle over the debt limit that would draw the attention and ire of former President TrumpDonald TrumpSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Crenshaw slams House Freedom Caucus members as 'grifters,' 'performance artists' Senate confirms Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection MORE, according to Republican senators.

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He also fears the threat of a national default could convince Sens. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinManchin warns about inflation as Democrats pursue Biden spending bill Overnight Health Care — Biden mandate faces Dem resistance Exporting gas means higher monthly energy bills for American families MORE (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaManchin warns about inflation as Democrats pursue Biden spending bill Minimum tax proposal drives wedge between corporate interests Biden points to drug prices in call for Senate social spending vote MORE (D-Ariz.) to support a exception to the filibuster rule to let Democrats raise the debt limit without any GOP votes.

McConnell met with Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBuild Back Better Is bad for the states  Dole to lie in state in Capitol Rotunda Biden points to drug prices in call for Senate social spending vote MORE (D-N.Y.) in Schumer’s Capitol office on Thursday afternoon to discuss the expiring debt limit and other issues. It was the first time the two leaders held a sit-down meeting in the Capitol since January 2021, when they met for a half-hour in McConnell's office to negotiate a power-sharing agreement to organize the 50-50 Senate. 

They previously hadn't met since March 2020, when Schumer walked over to McConnell’s office to negotiate the CARES Act. 

“We had a good discussion about several different issues that are all extant as we move toward the end of the session,” McConnell told reporters. “We agreed to kind of keep talking, working together to try to get somewhere.”

Republican senators say the meeting is a sign of how much McConnell wants to work out a deal with Schumer that would let Democrats raise the debt ceiling without requiring any Republican votes.

“They’re looking for ways we don’t have to vote,” said one Senate Republican familiar with the talks.

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McConnell has little time.

Treasury Secretary Janet YellenJanet Louise YellenDemocrats offer bill to raise debt ceiling, avoid filibuster Treasury rules would crack down on anonymous shell companies The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - New vaccine mandate in NYC; Biden-Putin showdown MORE informed congressional leaders Tuesday that the federal government will run out of the ability to pay all of its debt obligations on Dec. 15.

One proposal Republicans are floating is to allow an extremely expedited reconciliation process that would let Democrats to use the same special pathway they plan to use for President BidenJoe BidenHouse passes 8B defense policy bill House approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Senate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale MORE’s climate and social spending bill to raise the debt limit.

Under this scenario, Democrats would be allowed to use the reconciliation process to raise the debt limit without having to hold a time-consuming series of procedural votes on the Senate floor.

Instead of taking two weeks to amend the budget resolution to set up a new reconciliation vehicle, a process that would ordinarily require two vote-a-ramas on the floor, Republicans would allow the procedures to be compressed into one or a few days.

“My proposal is the Democrats can pass the debt limit all by themselves and that’s what they should do,” said Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote MORE (R-Pa.). “I’ve suggested that Republicans yield back time and not drag it out, and I’m confident we would do that.”

In October, McConnell rounded up the necessary GOP votes to advance the legislation. Republican senators say there’s no way that McConnell will be able to do that again.

“You don’t have 10 Republicans who are going to vote for it,” said the GOP senator, who requested anonymity to comment on the negotiations.  

Trump, who is seemingly looking for any opportunity to attack McConnell, ripped him over the maneuver.

Republican senators say McConnell is eager to avoid having Republicans vote again on a procedural motion to set up a final up-or-down vote on debt limit legislation.

McConnell told Biden in a letter last month that he could not be counted on to provide any Republican votes, even on a procedural motion to advance debt limit legislation. He insisted that Democrats use the budget reconciliation process to circumvent a GOP filibuster.

“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,” he wrote on Oct. 8.

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Republicans say McConnell also wants to avoid a standoff that Schumer could use as an excuse to persuade Manchin and Sinema to agree to weaken the Senate’s filibuster rule.

“My view is Schumer wants to use this as an opportunity to put a hole in the filibuster,” said Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio calls on Airbnb to delist some properties in China's Xinjiang region Democrats seek to avoid internal disputes over Russia and China GOP senators introduce bill targeting Palestinian 'martyr payments' MORE (R-Fla.). “If there’s an opportunity to carve out an opening on the filibuster, given the pressure they’re getting form the radical left, I think they would most certainly take. He probably concludes the nation’s creditworthiness is as good leverage as anything else.”

Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyFormer Sen. Bob Dole dies at 98 Alarm grows over smash-and-grab robberies amid holiday season GOP blocks bill to expand gun background checks after Michigan school shooting MORE (R-Iowa) said there’s no way that McConnell can back down from that statement by asking GOP colleagues to vote even for a cloture motion to overcome the 60-vote hurdle that controversial legislation usually needs to advance to final passage in the Senate.

“If you draw a line in the sand and you don’t defend that line, you’re going to lose credibility,” he said of raising the debt limit. “So we said last time was going to be the last time it was going to be bipartisan. You got to stick by it.”

Some Republicans initially saw the October standoff as a political victory because it forced Democrats, including vulnerable incumbents, to vote for a higher debt number instead of merely postponing the debt limit to a future date, which is what Democrats preferred to vote on.

But a major political problem arose because the proposal needed the votes of 10 Republicans to get past a filibuster waged by conservative Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzMcConnell faces GOP pushback on debt deal Democrats seek to avoid internal disputes over Russia and China GOP senators introduce bill targeting Palestinian 'martyr payments' MORE (R-Texas), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Overnight Defense & National Security — Lawmakers clinch deal on defense bill McConnell faces GOP pushback on debt deal MORE (R-Utah) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Overnight Defense & National Security — Lawmakers clinch deal on defense bill White House 'strongly opposes' Senate resolution to stop Saudi arms sale MORE (R-Ky.).

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McConnell’s leadership team tried to convince the conservatives to agree to let the final up-or-down vote be by unanimous consent so that it would pass with only Democratic votes. But Cruz, Lee and Paul forced the cloture vote, which put McConnell on the hook to find 10 votes.

He and his leadership team then had to convene an emergency meeting of the Senate Republican Conference on the evening of Oct. 7 to plead for GOP colleagues to vote for the unpopular procedural motion to advance the debt limit to final passage.

At the end of the day, 11 Republicans, including McConnell and most of the members of his leadership team, voted for to end the filibuster forced by Cruz and other conservatives.

This story was updated at 5:04 p.m. to show that Schumer and McConnell held an additional meeting earlier this year.