Mitch McConnell said Monday that there is “zero chance” that Congress will fail to increase America’s debt limit next month. But the Senate Majority Leader offered zero details on what, precisely, this inevitable debt-ceiling bill would look like — or how the GOP leadership planned to go about passing it.
“There is zero chance — no chance — we will not raise the debt ceiling,” McConnell said, appearing at an event in Kentucky with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “America is not going to default, and we’ll get the job done in conjunction with the secretary of the Treasury.”
Mnuchin, for his part, reiterated the White House’s preference for a “clean” debt-ceiling hike — which is to say, a bill that does nothing beyond increase the limit on how much money the U.S. government can borrow. Right now, the Treasury Department expects to hit the current debt limit by September 29.
In a saner political universe, such a “clean” bill would be a no-brainer. After all, the legislation is going to have to be bipartisan, as Republicans lack the 60 Senate votes necessary for evading a filibuster on a debt-ceiling increase. Given how hard it is for Democrats and Republicans to reach consensus on fiscal issues, it makes sense to defer all other conflicts while working to secure the mutual goal of preventing the United States from defaulting on its debt — and, thus, triggering a stock-market crash, recession, and/or long-term increase in America’s cost of borrowing.
Of course, the most sensible option would be the abolition of the debt ceiling altogether. If Congress wishes to limit the growth of the national debt, it can do so by raising taxes or appropriating less funds; the debt limit merely gives irresponsible deficit demagogues a chance to hold the nation’s credit rating hostage to their unpopular policy demands.
Alas, the House GOP is filled with such hawks. The far-right Republicans of the Freedom Caucus believe that voting to allow the Treasury to borrow more money — so as to finance the spending that Congress already voted for — is a crime against America’s grandchildren. (They also believe that the GOP should pass a tax plan that increases the deficit, and that the federal government must do everything in its power to ignore climate change.) Thus, they see voting to not trigger a recession as a major ideological concession to the left — one that should earn them some kind of reward.
Earlier this month, the caucus’s chairman Mark Meadows informed the GOP leadership that to support a debt-ceiling hike, he and his fellow reactionaries would need the bill to include at least $250 billion in mandatory spending cuts, or else drastic rollbacks to federal regulations.
During the Obama years, there was a political logic to this sort of brinkmanship: Since voters tend to blame the president’s party for anything bad that happens on his watch, Democrats had more to lose from default than Republicans did. Threatening to sabotage the economy unless your political rivals agree to advance your widely reviled ideological goals was always a morally odious gambit; but in 2013, it was, at least, a logically coherent one.
Now, though, no one has more to lose from a Congress-induced recession than congressional Republicans. And Paul Ryan can almost certainly pass a clean debt-ceiling hike with Democratic and moderate Republican votes, should he let such a bill come to the floor. So, the Freedom Caucus’s only leverage in this fight is a tacit threat to end Ryan’s speakership, should he opt for working with Democrats over the House’s only true conservatives. But given how much money Ryan is raking into the congressional GOP’s campaign coffers, it’s hard to believe a mutiny is in the cards.
Meanwhile, congressional Democrats — who, as members of the opposition party, enjoy relative immunity from the consequences of default — are mulling their own debt-ceiling demands.
The GOP leadership has reportedly considered folding the debt ceiling into some piece of minor legislation with bipartisan buy-in, or else into a bipartisan spending agreement. But if the Freedom Caucus’s word can be trusted, every option will require Ryan to buck his party and govern with Democratic votes. While such a move is unlikely to cost the speaker his gavel, it would (almost certainly) make it even more difficult for the House leadership to placate its right flank in the upcoming battles over the 2018 budget and tax reform.
All of which is to say: For McConnell and Ryan, September may prove the cruelest month.