Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is quietly moving to concoct a plan that would allow the nation’s borrowing limit to be raised and force Democrats to ultimately cast the decisive and politically toxic vote — but he’ll first have to sell it to Republicans.
To accomplish his plan, Republicans will first need to cooperate under the rules of the Senate. And it’s unclear if the necessary 10 GOP senators will do just that.
McConnell, who has in the past developed creative ways to avoid a debt default without having Republicans cast the key vote, has been quietly working for weeks with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer ahead of the December 15 deadline set by the Treasury Department. His positioning amounts to a sharp shift from the last debt ceiling standoff earlier this fall when he initially refused to provide any GOP votes before cutting a deal to raise the debt ceiling for two months — and later pointedly told President Joe Biden there wouldn’t be GOP cooperation again.
Now ahead of yet another deadline to avoid the nation’s first-ever default, and the calamitous effects that would go with it, McConnell is eager to avoid a fiscal crisis that could be blamed on his party — especially as GOP fortunes are on the rise in next year’s midterm elections.
“The country is never going to default,” McConnell said confidently at a Wall Street Journal event Monday night. “We frequently have drama associated with this decision. But I can assure you the country will never default.”
So he and Schumer are privately floating creating a new process that would allow the debt ceiling to be raised by just 51 votes in the Senate — with just Democratic votes — and only in this specific instance. But to create that new Senate process, a law needs to be enacted first, meaning there would need to be 60 votes to break a likely GOP filibuster in order to advance legislation creating the process.
To ease its chances of passage, Democrats and McConnell have discussed tying this new Senate process to the National Defense Authorization Act, a must-pass bill that sets the country’s defense policy. Once the NDAA would be signed into law, then Congress could raise the debt ceiling under this new process — and do it on Democrats’ votes alone.
Democrats are eying three different options in the House: One would be to include a debt ceiling measure in the underlying defense bill; another would be to pass the Senate process bill separately from the defense bill; and a third would be for the House to approve a rule that would allow the new process to be added to the defense bill once it passes the House chamber and before Senate consideration.
Each of those options would require 60 votes in the Senate to advance before the new fast-track process could become law.
But Republicans were lining up in opposition to tying any debt ceiling measure to the defense bill.
“I think it confuses the message,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of McConnell’s leadership team, told CNN. “So if I vote for the NDAA, people are gonna say I voted to raise the debt limit? I’m not for that.”
To get the defense bill out of the House, GOP support is likely to be necessary since Democrats can only afford to lose three votes with their narrow majority and a number of liberals reject the growth of Pentagon programs.
In a sign of the headwinds facing the plan, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was actively criticizing tying the two bills together, tweeting: “Funding our troops through the NDAA should in no way, shape, or form be tied to the debt limit in process or substance.”
Other conservatives rejected the new proposed process altogether, with Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah tweeting that it “would neuter the Senate. IT IS AKIN TO ‘NUKING THE FILIBUSTER!’”
McConnell is likely to address his conference on Tuesday about the matter.
But after years of sparring, McConnell and Schumer are working on their second fiscal deal in recent weeks — after they reached a deal last week to keep the government open until mid-February.
In floor remarks Monday, Schumer vowed that they will “work to address the debt limit and preserve the full faith and credit of the United States” and thanked McConnell “for his cooperation in that regard.”