Congress Is Playing Chicken With a Debt-Limit Increase — and It Could Be the End of the Filibuster

These two men really, really hate the slavery to Senate Democrats the legislative filibuster creates. Maybe they’ll find a way to use must-pass legislation to nuke it. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

There is nothing more frightening in American politics than members of Congress deciding to play chicken with a debt-limit increase. But that is what seems to be happening now, according to a report from Matt Fuller contradicting earlier assurances that Representative Mark Meadows and his abrasively conservative House Freedom Caucus were ready to go along with the kind of “clean” — i.e., without conditions — debt-limit increase that can get through the House and also win 60 votes in the Senate. According to Fuller, Meadows and his friends have lots of dirty demands as conditions for their votes, and worse yet, might go to war with Speaker Paul Ryan if he bypasses them by securing Democratic votes for a clean bill.

There are many possible political and economic ramifications of this oncoming confrontation in the House. But the logic of Meadows’s position that could take the fight in an unexpected direction: placing intense pressure on Mitch McConnell and Republican senators to kill the legislative filibuster so that Republicans will never again have to kowtow to a Democratic minority in Congress.

In the Fuller piece, Meadows ally Dave Brat bluntly expressed the long-standing frustration of House conservatives with having to trim their fiscal sails time after time:

“It’s not about Paul Ryan,” he said. “It’s about the Republican brand and fiscal responsibility. Why would we put a clean debt ceiling increase without any reforms whatsoever on a Republican president’s desk?”

The simple answer to Brat’s question is: the Senate filibuster. And while Republicans can get around a filibuster (though it’s easier said than done, as the GOP health care debacle has shown) with special budget rules, they are not available for appropriations bills — or debt-limit bills with or without spending conditions attached.

So House conservatives are shackled to the Senate so long as Republicans fall short of a supermajority in that chamber. The only way out is to blow up the legislative filibuster.

As it happens, that is something in which Mark Meadows has already expressed a strong interest. Back in March he joined Ted Cruz in an op-ed calling for the repudiation of potential Senate parliamentarian rulings on which health-care provisions did not meet budget rules and thus qualify for passage by a simple Senate majority. This approach was rejected by Mitch McConnell on the accurate grounds that the practice would quickly lead to the de facto abolition of the legislative filibuster. But Meadows was fully onboard, and presumably most of his HFC buddies would be as well, since nuking the filibuster would end the frustrating tyranny of Senate Democrats.

Considering the possibility this issue could pop up during the maneuvering over a debt-limit increase, it’s important to remember there’s another influential Republican who hates the legislative filibuster and wants McConnell to kill it: Donald J. Trump.

Lo and behold, Trump also hates the idea of “clean” debt-limit and appropriations bills negotiated with Democrats: He wants funding for his cherished Border Wall. Mark Meadows agrees with Trump on that as well.

It is not at all far-fetched to envision Trump (whose go-to move on health-care legislation was always to work with the HFC) and Meadows deciding to go after the legislative filibuster as a condition either votes for a debt-limit increase, votes for a year-end omnibus appropriations measure, or both (these two must-pass bills may well be combined).

This would change the political dynamics significantly: Instead of the well-worn story of conservatives threatening a debt default or government shutdown if their demands aren’t met, it could look as though the real threat was coming from McConnell and his quaint attachment to hoary Senate traditions that no one else gives a damn about. Such a maneuver, if it worked, would not only make “dirty,” ideologically-laden debt-limit and spending bills much easier to enact: It could also revive the health-care legislation that is such a blot on the GOP’s 2017 record (a filibuster-less Senate would not necessarily give Republicans the 50 votes they need to pass health-care legislation, but would make cutting a deal to get to 50 immensely easier with no budget rules involved).

Who knows: Paul Ryan might even get o board the no-filibuster train, since it would shift all the grief he gets from party conservatives to McConnell. Don’t be surprised if this becomes a big development. It may be just a presidential tweet away.

Why Nuking the Filibuster Could Be Part of a Debt-Limit Deal