This is what desperation looks like
No matter how unified in their public defiance Republicans appear, they’re in a position of weakness and hoping they can force Democrats into a race to the bottom.
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As it stands now, we’re two weeks away from a fiscal cliff that would cause the country to default on its debt for the first time ever. The remedy is simple: Congress can pass legislation to increase the amount of money that the country can borrow before the US Treasury runs out of credit to pay our bills. (Matter of fact, the House has already done so.) But Senate Republicans have made a cynical political calculation that closing the normal paths to fulfilling this constitutional responsibility will help them win future elections. If legislators ever want to know why people are disillusioned with the political process, mark this story down as Exhibit A.
An exasperated President Biden delivered a speech yesterday at the White House, during which he called on Republicans to move their useless asses out of the way so he and Democrats can get on with the people’s business. And hours later White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki briefed reporters with a chart pointing to the nearly $8 trillion in debt racked up during the Trump administration, including nearly $2 trillion in unpaid tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and corporations:
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said yesterday that the debt ceiling would need to be raised by the end of this week to avoid the worst repercussions.
We’ve been here before. In 2011, S&P Global Ratings, an American credit rating agency, downgraded the US’s credit rating from AAA+ to AAA after it took months of deadlocked negotiations for Congress to increase the limit to $16.4 trillion. Two years later, President Obama signed a bill to lift the debt ceiling almost another trillion dollars just a day before the Treasury’s deadline. Donald Trump signed a three-month suspension of the debt ceiling in 2017 and a year-long suspension the following year. In 2019, he signed another two-year suspension — in each instance during his administration, he received support from the Democrats.
The closer we get to default, the more skittish the markets will become. Jobs and retirement savings would be in jeopardy, interest rates could spike, increasing people’s mortgage and car payments. Social security benefits and salaries for service members, benefits for veterans are also at stake. And it would be an international embarrassment for a nation that thinks of itself as exceptional.
In the New York Times’s morning newsletter, David Leonhardt outlined the three likely outcomes to this unnecessary fiasco:
Republicans will cooperate in the end since the government defaulting on its debt would spawn economic ruin at home and abroad. But as Leonhardt notes: This prediction seems to be based more on hope than evidence.
Democrats could get rid of the filibuster. Too bad President Biden and Sens. Sinema and Manchin are on record in defiance of the deal. (And my spidey senses tell me other senators support retaining the filibuster in the shadows while Sinemanchin takes all the public heat for their position.) But the Democratic chorus to eliminate the 60-vote threshold is growing louder, according to new reporting published at press time.
Or Democrats could go the reconciliation route. There are risks to this option though: The process would take a couple of weeks and imperil vulnerable members of the party since Republicans will likely force as many controversial test votes that incumbents would have to defend during next year’s midterms. An additional reconciliation bill would also distract Democrats from negotiating the jobs and families plan that, according to party leadership, must pass in tandem with the bipartisan infrastructure deal by Halloween.
The Senate is scheduled to vote tomorrow on a bill that would suspend the debt limit through the end of 2022 so we’re like to find ourselves with a clearer picture on the Democrats’ action plan then.
For now, let’s zoom out and examine the GOP’s opposition. Mitch McConnell is heralded as a deft political tactician. But he’s built his legacy by obliterating political norms that he expects his opponents to observe while applying the same maneuvers — like budget reconciliation, for example — he admonishes when used against him. Republican policies are unpopular with the majority of Americans. So instead of campaigning and governing on them, McConnell relies on gerrymandered state legislatures, unelected federal judges and Supreme Court justices, and the exploitation of arcane Senate ruses to keep his power within arms reach.
And for all the supposed dysfunction within the Democratic Party, McConnell’s debt ceiling theatrics are actually designed to deflect attention from the fact that he’s got a few rebels in his own ranks. According to Jonathan Weisman at The Times, the presidential ambitions of Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri would keep them from voting to lift the debt limit even though most Republicans would be on board if they could do so via a voice vote. From Weisman:
Even if Mr. McConnell wanted to allow a debt ceiling increase to come to a majority vote, a single senator could delay action. And 10 Republicans would be needed to cut off a filibuster led by Mr. Cruz or Mr. Hawley; those votes might be hard to find.
In this context, the McConnell-led GOP’s strategy to win back the House and Senate by setting the government on fire, trapping the firefighters in the fire station, blaming the firefighters for the damage and hoping their voters will reward them for it is a case study in desperation. No matter how unified in their public defiance Republicans appear, they’re in a position of weakness and hoping they can force Democrats to a race to the bottom.
This would be fine if Democrats could use their majorities to pass sweeping voting rights to usurp the statewide voter suppression laws cropping up across the country or if a conservative supermajority in the Supreme Court didn’t embark on a new term yesterday that’s likely to end in the undoing of generations of progress. So instead of checking out, it’s critical to lock into what’s going on so you’re aware when these same politicians attempt to convince you that voting for them is in your personal and our collective interests. President Biden is nowhere close to perfect and Democrats leave much to be desired — but neither has done so terribly that they deserve to be held responsible for their opposition’s obstruction.