In trying to adequately describe the current stalemate in Washington over the necessary chore of avoiding a calamitous default on the nation’s public debt, I have struggled with several metaphors. Are Mitch McConnell and his Democratic opponents two Amish horse-carts slowly moving toward a mid-road collision? Two sumo wrestlers circling each other? A pair of three-toed sloths making love?
You get the idea. Congressional Democrats (and implicitly President Biden, who may soon have to publicly become more engaged in the absurd “stare-down”) unsurprisingly want bipartisan “cover” for a debt-limit increase or suspension, like the one they offered Republicans when the Trump administration was joyfully piling up debt. Indeed, it’s the expiration of a two-year deal in which both parties refused to play games with threatened debt defaults and government shutdowns that brought Washington to this juncture. Now both calamities are possible (a government shutdown at the end of the fiscal year on September 30 and a debt default at some inexact point in October, according to warnings from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen). Democrats want to attach a debt-limit measure to the stopgap spending bill needed to keep the federal government operating. Mitch McConnell, who can kill either expedient with a Senate filibuster, is saying this is a problem for Democrats, which they must solve themselves, presumably by attaching the debt-limit fix to the budget-reconciliation bill that will at some point presumably clear Congress on a strict party-line vote.
Punchbowl News interviewed McConnell today to probe any weakness in McConnell’s commitment to threatening the stability of the national and global financial system (which would be in big trouble if the current debt limit stays in place), and the laconic Kentuckian did his hammer-headed best to stay tough: “That’s their problem. I’m not voting [for a debt limit increase]. How many different ways do I need to say this?”
Debt limit increases, you see, are as unpopular as they are necessary. And it fits in neatly with latter-day Republican austerity messaging to combine attacks on Democrats’ socialistic Big Government spending with refusals to provide for the wherewithal to finance it. That Republicans were uninterested in fiscal discipline or the alleged economic and moral dangers of debt when Trump was in the White House and they controlled Congress is never addressed. Mitch McConnell has no problem with exhibiting hypocrisy, as Merrick Garland could tell you.
So this leaves Democrats with some bad choices. They can call McConnell’s bluff and pass a combined stopgap spending bill and debt limit measure. If he filibusters it anyway a government shutdown on October 1 is probably going to happen (they may still have a week or two to deal with the debt limit after the end of the fiscal year, whether or not the federal government is open). Maybe McConnell will relent and all will be well. Or maybe (either at the last minute or after a filibuster) Democrats will themselves relent and attach a debt-limit resolution to their reconciliation bill as McConnell has helpfully suggested from the beginning. But that’s easier said than done at this late date. With Democrats still working on the reconciliation bill and exhibiting a lot of problems reaching an agreement between the House and the Senate, and between moderates and progressives in both chambers, it’s not clear the reconciliation bill can pass in time to stave off a debt default.
Arguably that possibility could be used by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to whip their fellow Democrats into line, but at that point you’d be talking about the high-stakes risk to end all high-stakes risks: a single bill needed to head off a debt default and to enact much of Joe Biden’s agenda, with no Republican votes available to help get them over the hump. To put it another way, the leverage Mitch McConnell enjoys now over a stopgap spending bill and a debt limit measure could shift to any congressional Democrat willing to plunge the party and the country hellwards to win some concession or make some political point. It’s no exaggeration to say that whoever wins the current “staredown,” everyone could wind up losing.