McConnell is counting on the help of the traditional media in pretending all this is justified. “We have no list of demands,” he writes. “For two and a half months, we have simply warned that since your party wishes to govern alone, it must handle the debt limit as alone as well.” He’s referring to the budget reconciliation bills the Democrats used to pass the urgent COVID-19 relief bill, the American Rescue Plan, and the Build Back Better infrastructure and economic stimulus plans. Democrats have been forced to use the go-it-alone budget reconciliation process because Republicans are united in blocking anything that will help the country with the filibuster. He’s aided in that obstruction by Senate Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who continue to steadfastly refuse filibuster reform.
McConnell, while being entirely amoral and unprincipled, is not dumb. He is using the debt ceiling and the fact that the traditional media will not explain just how extreme he is being to help out Manchin and Sinema in their complaints that Biden’s plan is too expensive. Never mind that lifting the debt ceiling is about paying past debt, the obligations the nation already owes—the bills Republicans ran up under Trump with their massive tax cuts to the rich in particular. And never mind that this is the biggest, most dangerous cliff for the country to go over of them all. He can count on The New York Times to both-sides the issue, calling it merely “legislative gamesmanship,” and a “political game” about “partisan stubbornness,” which “Republicans and Democrats have long sparred over.”
There are a couple of opportunities in this fight for Democrats—if anyone can break through Manchin and Sinema’s thick skulls to impress upon them just how destructive their actions are. Biden hinted at one Monday, pointing out that the filibuster is a key problem here. “They’re threatening to use a procedural power called the filibuster, meaning that we have to get 60 votes, not 50 votes, to increase debt limit,” Biden told reporters. “This would block Democrats from meeting our obligations and responsibilities [and] prevent Congress from raising debt limit.” Now would be a really good time for Democrats to take that power away from McConnell.
Another alternative lies in Democrats going it alone again, since the Senate parliamentarian has cleared the way for them to use budget reconciliation on this. They can use it to take the debt ceiling as a hostage away from McConnell forever.
Greg Sargent explained how it could be done with help from David Super, a law professor at Georgetown. They can use the process not to just raise the debt ceiling, but to essentially nullify it. Democrats hadn’t wanted to use reconciliation for the debt ceiling in part because the statute requires that the bill would “specify the amounts by which the statutory limit on the public debt is to be changed,” meaning they’d have to put a number to it rather than just suspending it as they’ve done in past efforts.
But Super argues they don’t have to actually put a literal number on it. “You can probably change the number to something you don’t spell out in ink, but that you describe,” Super explained. “You tie it to the national debt. That is a number. It’s just not a number you wrote out.” What that would mean is legislation that says the debt ceiling is tied to the national debt, automatically raising—or lowering—to meet current obligations. Presto, it’s done. It could be that easy. And it would remove one of McConnell’s most dangerous weapons by ending the need to vote on it.
This is a really great opportunity not just to save the economy, but to take McConnell’s power away. End the filibuster and/or effectively end the debt ceiling. These aren’t radical suggestions, not compared to what McConnell and team are doing. They’re also not procedurally difficult, just politically so.
Biden is seemingly losing patience with the two, giving them absolutely no room to play the victim of grassroots pressure. Let’s see that turn into real pressure on them.