McConnell reactivates his connection to Biden — with a sharp debt warning
The letter, delivered to the White House on Monday, also cites Biden’s past opposition to debt increases while in the minority. McConnell summarized it this way: “The president’s party had to take responsibility for a policy agenda which you opposed. Your view then is our view now.”
The president and the Senate GOP leader jointly helped avert fiscal catastrophe several times when Biden was vice president due to their long-running relationship and mutual trust. Yet the two aren’t even speaking to each other as Congress approaches a calamitous fight over the debt ceiling. Monday’s missive and Biden’s speech about the debt ceiling later Monday amount to their first real communication on the most perilous deadline Congress will face this year.
Biden told reporters Monday that he had read the letter and planned to speak with McConnell about it. When asked if he could guarantee that the debt ceiling would be raised, Biden said, “No I can’t. That’s up to Mitch McConnell.”
The two leaders have bragged for years about their close working relationship. When Biden campaigned for president, he did so as a leader who could reason with an oft-obstinate McConnell. And just a few months ago, McConnell shocked all of Washington when he endorsed Biden’s infrastructure deal.
Now, at perhaps the most critical time, the two aren’t even trying to negotiate. McConnell wrote to Biden that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s reluctance to tackle the debt limit along party lines “is not an excuse; it is just a complaint.” He also said he will not provide a “shortcut around procedural hurdles they can clear on their own.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Capitol Hill Sept. 23, 2021. | Francis Chung/E&E News
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, said McConnell’s position “has to stick in the president’s craw. This is something that’s been routinely done. There’s been bipartisan cooperation about working together to raise the debt ceiling, dozens and dozens of times.”
The president argued Monday that Republicans were being hypocritical and irresponsible with their stance on the debt ceiling. “Republicans in Congress raised the debt three times when Donald Trump was president and each time with Democrat support, but now they won’t raise it, even though they’re responsible for more than $8 trillion of bills incurred in four years under the previous administration.”
The remarks come after McConnell’s conference blocked a proposal to raise the ceiling last week. Schumer also sent a letter to his colleagues Monday morning, writing that “we must get a bill to the President’s desk dealing with the debt limit by the end of the week. Period.”
He warned them he may keep the Senate in session through the weekend and the upcoming recess.
The Kentucky Republican, meanwhile, says he doesn’t take it personally that he and Biden aren’t in touch.
“The reason we’re not talking much is because of what they’re trying to do. I’m not offended by that. We don’t have anything to talk about right now. He’s got his hands busy, with Manchin, with Sinema,” McConnell said in a recent interview, referring to negotiations over Biden’s partisan social spending plan. “That doesn’t mean we have a hostile relationship. It’s just that there’s no business to be doing with them right now.”
As for whether Biden has picked up the phone to dial McConnell on the debt ceiling, he responded: “No. And I’m not ambivalent about that.”
As he focuses on saving his domestic spending and tax plans, Biden has sided with Schumer, who says he simply will not raise the debt ceiling with all Democratic votes through the arcane budget reconciliation process, as McConnell has demanded. Democrats say it takes too long and that the GOP should just not filibuster.
But in the process, the price tag for Biden’s social spending package has taken a major hit from the $3.5 trillion that Democratic leaders wanted, somewhat hampering Republicans’ arguments about the excess of a bill that large.
For now, it’s impossible to predict who will blink in the debt limit standoff. The country may run right up to the brink of catastrophe in the coming weeks as a mid-October deadline to lift the debt ceiling draws near.
“I don’t understand what point McConnell’s trying to make now,” Coons added, referring to the GOP leader’s disinterest in allowing a simple majority vote instead of the more complex budget reconciliation process. “I don’t know whether our president will be able to move him.”
Sen. Chris Coons, a friend and ally of President Joe Biden, leaves the chamber as lawmakers work to advance the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, at the Capitol. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
As Biden and Democratic leaders focus on expansive and transformational government investments in health care, education and climate action, McConnell is making a risky bet that Democrats will fold under pressure from Biden as the debt deadline draws near. That will occur in just two weeks, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Raising the borrowing limit through reconciliation would take Congress at least a week, according to budget experts.
The president and the Senate minority leader worked together to avert default in 2010 and avoid the fiscal cliff of 2012, when a host of tax cuts were set to expire. But unlike those past collisions, McConnell and his Republican colleagues have no policy goals they want enacted as a condition for suspending or hiking the debt ceiling. Rather, the GOP wants Biden and Democrats to drop their push for expanding the safety net, raising taxes on the wealthy and taking action on climate.
Biden’s reached out to Republicans beyond McConnell; he called Sen. Susan Collins last week to congratulate the Mainer on her successful proposal to aid victims of directed-energy attacks. But she said they didn’t even discuss the debt ceiling.
“Republicans would vote to suspend the debt ceiling through the end of next year if the president abandoned the plans for this $3.5 trillion [bill],” Collins said in an interview.
The Biden administration, for its part, deployed Yellen to call McConnell on Sept. 15 to reemphasize the economic costs of a potential default. Administration officials familiar with the call described it as respectful but acknowledged it did not seem to sway the minority leader.
There is increasing skepticism within the White House that McConnell and the Senate Republicans will change their position. Even so, the White House is trying to up its public pressure on them with Monday’s speech.
And Democrats say Biden will at least have to try and move McConnell at some point, no matter how immovable the Kentuckian appears. Through his campaign trail invocations of McConnell and other GOP allies, Biden has built a brand as someone who can at least talk to Republicans.
“If anybody could get McConnell to do the right thing, it would be Biden,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “You could say, ‘Hey, how about this? All of you vote against it, but don’t filibuster it.’”
That’s exactly what Schumer tried earlier last week when he proposed that the Democrats all vote to raise the debt ceiling by a majority vote. But that required unanimous consent from all senators. And McConnell wouldn’t give it.
‘Grim Reaper’ Mitch McConnell Is Coming to Kill the Economy
Mitch McConnell won another round in his quest for world domination when he blocked Democrats’ effort to act responsibly and step up to the thankless task of raising the debt limit. This went beyond his already irresponsible threat not to lift a finger to help Democrats lift it. Now he’s actively stopping them from doing the right thing on their own.
There are lots of things you can say about Cocaine Mitch, but you can’t say he broke his vow to make stopping Biden “100 percent of his focus.” His willingness to imperil the full faith and credit of the United States to do so is more proof than the country can stand.
This isn’t about future spending or Democrats’ plans; it’s about refusing to pay debts we’ve already incurred. In less than three weeks, the bill for the Trump-McConnell tax cut for the elites they both pretend to hate, along with everything else the country has spent money on in recent years, comes due. Pay it and the parties go on to fight another day. Don’t pay it, and all hell breaks loose.
McConnell says that Democrats can lift the debt ceiling without any Republican support, but—even setting aside that they’d be doing so to pay the tab Trump ran up—it’s not clear they can, given McConnell killing their effort on Tuesday and time running short.
Living up to the promise to pay what we owe isn’t an issue that registers in opinion polls; Democrats have failed miserably to label the bills at the center of this debate the Trump-McConnell debt or to describe just how ludicrous the GOP position is. Imagine telling your credit card company that you meant to pay your bill but your spouse wouldn’t raise your debt ceiling.
On behalf of America, that’s the grift McConnell is pulling. If successful, he’ll leave the country unable to pay its bills for the first time in 245 years. He will be cutting off America’s nose to spite liberals’ faces. It makes no sense.
We got an inkling of what could happen in 2011, when then-House Speaker John Boehner went to the absolute last minute before raising the ceiling as a way to torment Barack Obama. As it dragged on, Standard & Poor’s downgraded America’s debt, meaning taxpayers had to pay $1.3 billion more to borrow money. Global markets trembled and there was a market sell-off here. Veterans and Social Security recipients feared their checks would stop arriving.
McConnell is threatening to take us to the edge again, or over it this time, in the hopes that he can convince the country that Democrats are not fit to govern. But there’s no excuse at all for refusing to pay back debts America has already incurred, and it’s been Republicans who’ve done the most to run up that tab. Of the 57-percentage-point increase in the debt to GDP ratio since 1960, 52 of them came when a Republican sat in the Oval Office.
Running last year, McConnell said “If I’m still the majority leader in the Senate, think of me as the Grim Reaper. None of that stuff is going to pass." Thanks in part to Trump’s seditious temper tantrum after his own loss, Democrats won both special elections in Georgia and with them control of the Senate but even as minority leader McConnell is doing his damnedest to kill Democrats’ dreams—even when their dream is to pay our bills and keep America’s economy and the foundation of the world economy intact.
Here’s how Obama’s speechwriter Jon Favreau described the stakes in 2011, before Boehner yielded at the 11th hour:
“With each passing day, making our debt payments to businesses and governments around the world would become more and more difficult. When the world stopped seeing the United States as a safe and reliable place to invest, the cost of borrowing money would skyrocket for every single American—whether it’s a home mortgage or a personal credit card. And those high borrowing costs, coupled with billions in delayed income for seniors, soldiers, small-business owners, and their employees, almost surely would send our economy, and the world’s, into a crisis even deeper and more dramatic than the Great Recession of 2009.”
This is the fire that McConnell is playing with now as he’s ceded control of the party to Trump, who couldn’t win himself but is now actively punishing Republicans willing to call out his craziness with primaries. Desperate to hang on the MAGA nuts he needs to show up at the polls to retake the senate,, McConnell looks the other way when Trump keeps raving about how the election was supposedly stolen from him.
And where Trump claims his victims by shouting, McConnell uses a soporific, unsmiling certainty that lulls people into a state of passivity that’s hard to crack. What the Turtle is doing with the debt limit could be every bit as destructive to the economy as the Donald’s Big Lie is to our democracy. When Chicken Little said the sky was falling, folks at least looked upward. Try explaining that the debt ceiling is for bills run up by those now refusing to own up to them and I can attest that everyone suddenly has to hang up and take another call.
We think we can get through any ordeal because we’ve gotten through so many. But it’s hard to think of a worse time to call into question the reliability of America. We have one of the worst death rates from the pandemic—twice as high as might have been seen under a stable president. Treaties were broken; Putin became a confidant, our allies the enemy. We sloughed off floods, fires, melting ice caps, and temperatures of 120 degrees as flukes man can’t control.
The country is recovering from the worst pandemic since 1917 but it’s new and fragile and subject to relapse. Who will look to America to lead if McConnell helps send not just our own economy, but those of our allies and enemies, into free fall?
Democrats attempt the near-impossible: Shaming Mitch McConnell
Democrats are trying something that almost never works: Shaming Mitch McConnell into doing the right thing by citing the national interest, historical precedent and governing norms.
As the nation hurtles toward a financial catastrophe this month, President Joe Biden is heaping pressure on the Republican Senate minority leader to share the burden of raising the federal borrowing limit. This accounting maneuver is normally a bipartisan custom, but McConnell is refusing to help – even though the US is on the hook for huge debts run up under the Trump administration.
“I think quite frankly it’s hypocritical, dangerous and disgraceful,” Biden said at the White House on Monday, adding that he couldn’t guarantee that the US wouldn’t default on its debt and throw the global economy into chaos. His dire remarks took the showdown to another level and helped knock nearly a full percentage point off the Dow Jones Industrial Average on a rocky day.
But Democrats would be wise not to confuse McConnell with someone who cares about such pressure or might be embarrassed into folding his cards because his current stance conflicts with past positions.
“The majority doesn’t need our votes,” McConnell said Monday.
“I suggest that our colleagues get moving,” he added, further cementing his reputation for granite-like immovability once he has settled on a political strategy.
Technically, McConnell might be correct. In the last resort, Democrats could use a time consuming and complicated maneuver known as reconciliation to extend the government’s borrowing authority. But the Kentuckian’s action has likely set yet another brutal precedent that will further polarize the business of governance and make the vital task of maintaining a stable economy even more politicized and dysfunctional in years to come.
The latest debt-ceiling showdown is the most recent example of how the wily Kentucky senator is ready to crush governing norms and conventions if they advance his political goals, thanks to his extraordinary thick hide that is an undeniable political asset. Just because Democrats joined the GOP in raising the debt limit when Republicans were in the majority doesn’t mean the favor will be repaid now that the situation is reversed.
And given McConnell’s habit of making narrow, partisan political calculations, there’s no reason for him to change now. His mastery of Senate procedure and the politics of obstruction and brinkmanship have helped him win and wield power in the past, throttling the goals of Democratic presidents and majority leaders when the GOP slips into the minority. And his ability to shield his senators from tough votes earns him their loyalty – one reason why ex-President Donald Trump’s clumsy reported attempts to oust him have little chance of succeeding.
McConnell’s approach works
McConnell’s critics often argue that he’s compromising Senate custom, the Constitution or American national interests for his own naked partisan ends. But don’t expect such claims to move him. After all, his approach built a generational conservative majority on the Supreme Court and made him one of the most dominant political figures in decades in Washington.
The kind of rigid resistance to political heat McConnell is displaying in the current showdown recalls his stubborn persistence in depriving ex-President Barack Obama a chance to fill an open Supreme Court seat in 2016.
As Obama complained that historically it has “not been viewed as a question” that Supreme Court nominees would get a vote, then-Senate Majority Leader McConnell refused to grant his pick Merrick Garland even a hearing, claiming a custom that constitutional requirements governing Supreme Court picks were suspended in the final year of an administration. But when liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died weeks before the last election in 2020, McConnell conjured an exception to his own rule to seat Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett. An extraordinary torrent of outrage from liberals about the inconsistency and hypocrisy at play didn’t move McConnell an inch. His legacy is secure in the marble-pillared Supreme Court chamber.
In another example of McConnell’s willingness to put the pursuit of power before principle, he vigorously condemned Trump for inciting the Capitol insurrection and the invasion by a mob of his beloved Senate. His comments triggered speculation that he might finally cut Trump loose and bury the former President’s hopes of reviving a political career that complicated McConnell’s own.
But when political expediency and the hope of winning back the Senate in 2022 – and the need to avoid alienating Trump’s base voters required it, he voted against convicting Trump in his impeachment trial over the outrage.
In demeanor, intellect and temperament, McConnell could hardly be more different than Trump. But his willingness to compromise constitutional principles for power is squarely in line with a Republican Party that in recent years has shown that there are no limits on its aggressive hunt for dominance in Washington.
Holding the economy hostage
There is a strong objective case that Republican senators lined up behind McConnell on the debt ceiling are at the very least being disingenuous in and, as Biden said Monday, are playing Russian roulette with the US economy.
But on such a complicated issue, nuance and the truth are easily obscured in sloganeering and partisan media. The GOP wants to convince the country that the Democrats are spending it into bankruptcy and are alone responsible for racking up a national debt that now sits at nearly $29 trillion.
McConnell wants to force Democrats to use reconciliation to raise the debt ceiling on their own without Republican votes because it would complicate the already treacherous task of passing Biden’s $3.5 trillion social spending plan, which is crucial for the success of his presidency. Republicans are not even trying to hide what they are doing – namely holding the economy and wellbeing of millions of Americans ransom to dent the Democratic agenda.
“There’s no reason for us to help facilitate bad policy that we disagree with, and so they have to eat up little floor time passing the debt ceiling through reconciliation that’s fine with me,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the GOP leadership, told CNN’s Manu Raju on Monday.
The Republican argument, however, that the debt ceiling needs to be raised to pay for Biden’s program is a false one. It would need to be extended to pay for existing obligations incurred by Congress even without any more government spending. The claim by Democrats that their current plans will all be paid for by tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy is yet to be independently tested.
Not only are GOP senators refusing to offer any votes for raising the borrowing limit, they are committed to using the Senate filibuster so Democrats can’t quickly and easily accomplish it with a quick majority vote in the 50-50 Senate – an openly hypocritical move.
McConnell used minority Democratic votes in previous bipartisan budget deals to share the pain of lifting the debt ceiling. But that’s now forgotten by the minority leader, as are his past statements that playing games with America’s credit should be avoided.
For example, in hailing a bipartisan budget deal in 2019 that also raised the debt ceiling, McConnell, then the majority leader, said the measure secures “our Nation’s full faith and credit and ensures that Congress will not throw this kind of unnecessary wrench into the gears of job growth and a thriving economy.”
Why the debt ceiling must be raised
If the borrowing limit is not extended by the middle of the month, Washington won’t be able to pay its bills.
The military could go without pay. Social Security checks will dry up. Mortgages, car loans and credit card bills would be more expensive. Millions of Americans might lose their jobs and the pandemic recovery would crash. Since the stability of US debt is the bedrock of the global economy, a default by Washington could plunge the rest of the world into crisis.
But in the narrow calculations of the Senate minority leader, that would all be Biden’s fault – and would likely further wound an already-wobbling presidency. And in the end, McConnell is probably calculating that Democrats would never let it get that far and would have to compromise their own goals given the disastrous impact of a debt default.
Still, given McConnell’s well-earned reputation for being impervious to political shame and pressure, Senate Democrats ought to face questions over why they waited so long to act. Playing chicken with the senator from Kentucky is usually a losing proposition.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer appears to have been trying to play a McConnell-style game himself to saddle Republicans with intense pressure to act to avoid disaster. The question now is if the New York senator would allow the economy to go over the cliff to see whether his bet that the GOP would pay a price is right.
Schumer said on Monday that it was imperative to get a bill raising the debt ceiling to Biden’s desk by the end of the week – and he’s lining up a vote on a bill already passed by the House that would do so.
“We aren’t asking Republicans to support it when it comes time for a vote. We only ask that they get out of the way as Democrats pass it on our own,” Schumer said.
But with the certainty that Republicans will not play ball, the bill will fall short of the filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes – and will further spook the markets and observers watching the US with alarm from abroad.
And in the end, McConnell has the advantage since by holding the White House and both chambers of Congress, the Democrats have the institutional responsibility to act – even though, as usual, the Senate minority leader appears to be the one wielding power.
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