WASHINGTON – In the frantic attempt to avoid defaulting on the nation’s debt, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has held an unusual position of power, as the one who orchestrated both the problem and the solution.
McConnell is no longer the majority leader, but he is exercising his minority status in complicated and unknown ways, all in an effort to stop President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda and even if doing so pushes the country into dire economic uncertainty.
All that said, the outcome of this debt crisis leaves zero confidence that there will be no next. In fact, McConnell engineered the end of the showdown that ensures Congress will be in the same place in December when funding to pay America’s bills runs out. That means another potentially devastating debt showdown, all while the COVID-19 crisis persists and the economy struggles to recover.
“Mitch McConnell loves chaos,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. “He is a very smart strategist and strategist, but the country pays the price very often for what he does.”
The crisis has cemented McConnell’s legacy as a master of detour. He is the architect of the impasse and the one who resolved it, even if only in the short term. More battles are ahead as Democrats shrink Biden’s big agenda, a now $ 2 trillion expansion of health, child care and climate change programs, all paid for with taxes on corporations and the wealthy who oppose the Republicans.
For some Republicans, McConnell is a canny leader who uses every tool at his disposal to harness power and undermine Biden’s priorities. For others, including Donald Trump, he is weak, he has “collapsed” too soon. For Democrats, McConnell remains an infuriating rival who has shown once again that he is willing to break one institutional norm after another to pursue Republican power.
“McConnell’s role is to be the leader of the opposition and his job is to reject what the majority wants to do,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist.
“No one should be surprised to see that the leader of the Republicans makes it difficult for the Democrats to work,” he said.
The risks are clear, not just for Biden and the Democrats who control Washington.
The debt showdown left Democrats portrayed as big spenders, willing to add to the nation’s debt, now $ 28.4 trillion, to pay the bills. But both parties have contributed to that burden due to past decisions that leave the government rarely operating in the black.
Republicans also risk recrimination from all sides of their deeply divided party. By easing the crisis, McConnell insulated his Republicans from further blame, but angered Trump and his allies, who are eager to skewer the Kentucky senator for compromising.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said he told colleagues during a private meeting before the vote on the debt that it was “a mistake for Republican leaders to accept this deal.”
Once a routine vote is taken to ensure the nation’s bills are paid, raising the debt limit has become a political weapon, particularly for Republicans, to criticize government spending. The Republicans’ tea party class a decade ago brought the nation to the brink of default on the issue and established a new Republican strategy.
In this case, McConnell made it clear that he had no demands other than disrupting Biden’s national agenda, the now $ 2 trillion package that is the president’s signature legislation, but that Republicans mock him as a “socialist spree. of taxes and expenses “.
To get Biden’s agenda passed, Democrats rely on a complicated procedure, the budget reconciliation process, which allows 51 votes for approval, rather than the 60 normally needed to overcome Senate objections. In the 50-50 split Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris gives Democrats a majority with her ability to cast a tiebreaker vote.
McConnell took advantage of the Democratic budget strategy as a way to combine the issues, and announced months ago that he wanted Democrats to raise the debt limit on their own using the same procedure. It was his way of tying Biden’s great federal government reform to the nation’s growing debt burden, even though they are separate and most of Biden’s agenda has not been enacted.
The debt increase vote has rarely been popular, and at times both parties have had to do it on their own. But McConnell hit new legislative ground trying to dictate terms to Democrats.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., quickly ignored McConnell’s demands on the cumbersome process and set out to pass the debt ceiling bill by a more traditional route.
As the October 18 deadline approached, when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that the government would run out of funds to pay the nation’s bills, Schumer’s strategy hit the Republican lockdown or obstructionism. Only after business pressure mounted and Biden implored Republicans to “get out of the way” did McConnell call for a timeout.
McConnell orchestrated the way around the issue by allowing traditional voting Thursday night and even joining 10 other Republican senators in helping Democrats reach the 60-vote threshold needed to ease the crisis.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki praised Republicans who “did their part tonight, ending filibuster and allowing Democrats to do the job of raising the debt ceiling.” But he urged the parties to come together to find a more permanent solution.
“We cannot allow the routine process of paying our bills to turn into a political confrontation that shakes confidence every two years or every two months,” he said.
Schumer adopted a more scathing tone.
“The Republicans played a dangerous and risky partisan game, and I’m glad their risky attitude didn’t work out,” he said.
That, too, brought trouble: McConnell said in a letter to Biden Friday night that such antics say “I will not provide that assistance again.”
That night before the vote, McConnell told his Republican colleagues that he came up with the solution in part because he was concerned that Democrats would change the obstruction rules, as they had been arguing as a last resort option. He had reached out to two key Democrats, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, to make sure they weren’t thinking of doing that.
And in addition, the Republican leader had achieved his goal: to hamper Biden’s agenda, sow the seeds of fiscal difficulties and present the Democrats as a party fighting to govern.
It’s the first big fight McConnell has had with Biden, and it appears to be the one that could define the final phase of their decades-long partnership.