Considering the incessantly personalized and pugilistic nature of insider Beltway chatter, it’s unsurprising that Mitch McConnell’s offer of a temporary way out of Congress’s manufactured debt-ceiling crisis is being described by many as a defeat. “McConnell blinks” was the widely echoed headline at Axios. Democrats eagerly embraced this framing too: “McConnell caved,” proclaimed Senator Elizabeth Warren. But when you look at what McConnell gets out of the temporary deal with Chuck Schumer, assuming it is consummated before the debt limit is breached on October 18, the move doesn’t look like a craven surrender at all.
It’s true that McConnell moved first to de-escalate the situation. The explanation emanating from sources on Capitol Hill is that the Senate minority leader was panic-stricken over the possibility that his debt-limit brinkmanship would drive filibuster champions like Joe Manchin into support for filibuster reform. Color me skeptical. Yes, it’s possible the Democratic senator secretly went to McConnell and extorted a short-term debt-limit increase in exchange for not going nuclear on the filibuster. But more likely, Manchin’s statement on October 6 eschewing any interest in filibuster reform was simply yet another vociferous pledge that he will never ever support a carve-out from the legislative filibuster, or abolition of the maneuver altogether. The said filibuster is, after all, the principal source of the West Virginian’s extraordinary power this year, since the necessity of piling most of Joe Biden’s agenda into a filibusterproof budget-reconciliation bill gives Manchin a virtual veto over that massive piece of legislation.
So what’s in it for McConnell aside from preserving his beloved filibuster? First and foremost, he gets what he wanted most from the whole debt-limit fight: all 50 Democratic senators voting for a specific-dollar debt-limit increase with a lot of zeroes on it. The actual number of zeroes is irrelevant for purposes of 2022 attack ads, which can simply charge vulnerable Democrats with voting to “add hundreds of billions ($480 billion to be exact) to the national debt” in their socialistic zeal to tax and spend and borrow. This was, of course, precisely what Democrats wanted to avoid via a suspension of the debt limit, rather than an increase, along with bipartisan cover. Now all that needs to happen is ten Republican votes for cloture and then a strict party-line vote for the actual debt increase.
In addition to gaining some attack-ad fodder, McConnell gets to replay the whole demagogic exercise whenever the new debt limit is breached, most likely in December. It adds another bargaining chip to the one he already holds in being able to threaten a government shutdown when the stopgap spending bill runs out, also in December. And in the meantime, he can quietly tell his friends on Wall Street that he did them the inestimable favor of heading off a financial calamity. If he also did indeed reduce the already low odds of Senate Democrats blowing up the filibuster, that’s an added bonus.
The downside for McConnell, other than Beltway assessments he lost, is the fact that his party’s leader, Donald Trump, is already echoing them. “Looks like Mitch McConnell is folding to the Democrats, again,” Trump said in a statement on Wednesday evening. “He’s got all of the cards with the debt ceiling, it’s time to play the hand. Don’t let them destroy our Country!”
Sure, many MAGA folk are likely under the delusion that increasing the debt limit is about enabling more spending rather than paying for past spending, much of it sanctioned by Donald J. Trump himself. But on the other hand, it’s unlikely they will soon be marching in the streets, shouting “Mitch didn’t force them to use reconciliation!,” which is precisely the inside-the-Beltway basis for calling him a big fat loser.
As Ben Jacobs wrote at New York shortly after McConnell made his offer, it “just pauses the ongoing game of chicken between McConnell and Schumer.” It’s the ability to keep Washington’s reigning Democrats in a state of crisis and potential disunity that is McConnell’s most important asset at this stage of his obstructionist career. I’m sure he looked at that prospect with the unblinking eyes of a wily old schemer.