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McConnell stares down Democrats on debt ceiling. Washington wonders if he’ll blink.

·4 min read

Mitch McConnell’s playing a game of chicken with the Democrats.

The stakes: A potential default on America’s debt and a domestic economy turned upside down just as it paddles out of its pandemic slump.

The Senate Minority Leader is making it abundantly clear that Democrats will need all of their 50 votes to raise the debt ceiling in the coming weeks, vowing that no Republican member will lift a finger to help pay the nation’s bills.

“It is their sole responsibility,” he said. “They’ll be on their own.”

Washington’s wondering if he’s bluffing.

The early consensus is that the worst-case scenario will be avoided, because the risk for blame is too high for either party to incur. There’s also history to consider: A default has never happened before.

Norm Eisen, a former special assistant to President Barack Obama and now a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brooking Institute, said that McConnell’s most likely play is to apply the most pressure on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer until the bitter end. There’s little incentive to hand over Republican votes now without any questions or conditions and weeks left to play his hands.

“McConnell will put the squeeze on Schumer by stalling as long as possible to get the best deal he can. That is particularly true given the reconciliation battle going on now,” said Eisen. “But these clashes over funding and the debt always seem dire, yet have always worked out before. They will here too, sooner or later.”

Debt ceiling brinkmanship has become a familiar ritual for Congress and its interested agents since former President Barack Obama’s administration. Then, McConnell admitted that using the debt ceiling was the only way to drag Obama “kicking and screaming” into negotiations.

The country’s current debt now stands at about $28 trillion. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin has informed Congress that the nation’s bills to its creditors are coming due sometime in October, without precisely pinpointing when.

McConnell has used the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion social spending proposal as a driving reason why Republicans won’t lend their votes. If Democrats are planning to employ reconciliation -- requiring only a majority for passage -- on their expensive budget plan, they should use the same vehicle for the debt ceiling hike, McConnell has reasoned. After all, they’re the ones attempting to pile on more debt, he argues.

Except this is not how he’s operated in the past.

When Donald Trump was president and added nearly $2 trillion to the debt with his tax cuts, McConnell acceded to debt limit increases, even pledging at one point there was “zero chance -- no chance -- we won’t raise the debt ceiling.”

“We raised the debt ceiling because America can’t default,” McConnell said in 2019. “I mean -- that would be a disaster.”

The politics are different now of course. Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress and with his eye trained on retaking the majority next year, McConnell is in no mood to play nice with the opposition.

For the moment, McConnell’s bet is that because Democrats are in power, they will shoulder more of the blame if the country somehow stumbles into default. Among Republican voters, it might even be a bigger risk to accommodate more Biden-branded spending.

“Who the median voters will blame if things go south is an open question -- and in part a function of how you guys cover it,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist. “But your average Republicans will not object to the conference playing hardball here, and for GOP members there may be more immediate risk if they are seen as capitulating on the debt limit and facilitating the Biden agenda.”

It’s also a moment for some of McConnell’s more ambitious colleagues -- who harbor 2024 presidential aspirations -- to snag the spotlight for their defiance. To that end, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has said he will filibuster the Democrats’ attempt to raise the debt limit. He likely won’t be the only one. That would mean Democrats would need to convince 10 Republicans to get to 60 votes to break it.

But it’s the behind-the-scenes lower boil pressure that could end up pulling both sides away from the ledge.

Leaders from the Business Roundtable to Amazon to the American Bankers Association have all been publicly and privately urging congressional leaders to lift the self-imposed borrowing limit to avoid the “unacceptable risk” and “irreparable harm” of default.

“We are not dealing with an inexperienced and impulsive president here but veteran dealmakers on all sides are in the legislative and executive branches,” said Eisen. “I think everyone will blink.”

‘A real sense of revulsion.’ Democrats bet against McConnell -- in New Hampshire.

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