The two top leaders in the Senate have opened discussions to find a way out of a looming debt crisis, a sharp departure from the standoff a month ago that took the United States to the brink of a first-ever default.
With Republicans buoyed by their chances to take back Congress in next year’s midterms, they are eager to avoid another round of brinkmanship – or potential economic catastrophe – and are more eager to fight with their adversaries over President Joe Biden’s sweeping tax-and-spending agenda and inflation woes hitting the country.
“We don’t want to interrupt our worthy adversaries while they’re committing hara-kiri,” said Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas and member of the leadership team, when asked about the different approach.
In a shift from their last battle, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made a short trip over to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s second floor suite Thursday afternoon to stave off the crisis and find a deal before a December 15 deadline to raise the debt limit. It was a marked departure from the last battle when McConnell initially insisted that Republicans would not assist with the effort, prompting weeks of angry posturing before the GOP leader ultimately floated a short-term deal.
Emerging from the Thursday meeting, McConnell called it a “good discussion” and the two agreed to “keep talking” about the massive year-end agenda the Senate is struggling to finish, including raising the debt ceiling and avoiding a government shutdown by December 3. Senators briefed on the matter say Republicans are open to a deal that would allow Democrats to easily raise the debt ceiling without GOP support, so long as Republicans don’t drag out the process.
Cornyn said the deal being discussed would “expedite the process” and “avoid” some of the time-consuming procedures to allow Democrats to vote on their own to raise the limit .
Without a deal between McConnell and Schumer or 10 GOP senators willing to break a filibuster, Democrats would have two choices to raise the debt ceiling in the 50-50 Senate.
Democrats could either use a process known as budget reconciliation, which cannot be filibustered but would open them up to scores of GOP amendments in the Senate and would eat up days of precious floor time.
Or they could change the filibuster rules and allow the debt ceiling to be raised by a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than 60 to break a stalling tactic – something McConnell has been fearful his adversaries may actually do with their backs up against the wall.
But Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia reiterated to CNN on Wednesday that he flatly opposes going that route, ensuring Democrats would lack the support to do so.
“Absolutely,” the West Virginia Democrat said when asked if he was still opposed to changing the filibuster rules to address the debt limit. “Even more so.”
With no clear way out of the matter, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, has floated an alternative approach that has been discussed with McConnell and other top leaders.
Toomey told reporters he is frustrated that Democrats don’t want to take responsibility for the debt of their expensive spending programs. Nevertheless, he wants to find a path forward that will require Democrats vote on their own, but in a less lengthy process.
“I have suggested the Republicans would yield back time, not drag things out, and I’m confident we would do that,” Toomey said.
In the last standoff, Republicans demanded that Democrats use the budget reconciliation process, a request that Schumer and his party promptly rebuffed. That’s because they contended they didn’t have enough time to go through reconciliation and argued they didn’t want to set a precedent by going that route for future borrowing limit increases. This time, however, Democrats have not taken as hard of a line.
Yet some Democrats say they should hold firm again and force McConnell once again to give in and offer a way forward.
“Of course,” Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said when asked if he believed Republicans would supply the 10 votes needed to break a filibuster and advance to a final vote to raise the debt limit.
“Republicans have already shown us the path,” Murphy said, referring to last month’s standoff that ultimately led McConnell to propose a short-term deal. “In the end, the Republicans weren’t willing to crater the economy.”
Murphy added: “All they have to do is allow the vote to proceed. They took that offer a month ago. There’s enough of them that aren’t suicidal that they’ll push this economy off the cliff. So that will happen again.”
Sen. Brian Schatz also downplayed concerns about the looming debt limit deadline.
“There’s always a lot of drama around the debt limit,” he said. “But we always raise the debt limit, and we’ll do it again.”
The Hawaii Democrat told CNN he doesn’t “want to dare” Republicans to blink. “But I do think that the adults will emerge because they have to.”
Other Democrats aren’t so confident. Senate Majority Whip Duck Durbin added that a better way is to solve the problem for good: Change the Senate’s filibuster rules to allow a debt ceiling increase to advance by just a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than 60.
“We need to find a way to stop this perpetual showstopper once and for all,” Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said Wednesday. “And I’ve appealed to my colleagues regardless of how they feel about a yes or no vote to change this system. This is just unfair and it’s dangerous for our economy.”
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has set a December 15 deadline to raise the debt limit, something that came after 11 GOP senators joined with Democrats voted to break a filibuster in October, paving the way for Democrats to approve a temporary extension, averting a default.
Republicans argued at the time that offering their assistance was a one-time deal to ensure Democrats wouldn’t try pressure members to change filibuster rules, as well as provide them with enough time to raise the limit themselves using reconciliation.
One day after that vote, which McConnell backed, the GOP leader wrote a letter to President Joe Biden warning him that he shouldn’t expect help from their party again to avert “another avoidable crisis,” sharply attacking Schumer for a partisan speech he delivered on the floor moments after the short-term measure was approved.
“I write to inform you that I will not provide such assistance again if your all-Democrat government drifts into another avoidable crisis,” McConnell said in the October letter to Biden.