Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell has engineered ways out of a devastating debt default in the past.
This time may be different – at least for now.
Facing the riskiest debt ceiling standoff in a dozen years, Senate Republican leaders are planning to take a backseat role and let the newly empowered House GOP majority try to find a way out of the impasse with the White House, a high-stakes gambit but one that underscores the new power order in a divided Washington.
McConnell and his leadership team are wary about appearing to undercut the House GOP’s position and see little chance at success by trying to hash out a deal without the explicit blessing of Speaker Kevin McCarthy. With roughly four months before fears of a default dramatically intensify, Senate Republicans say they will sit back and see how the House GOP maneuvers a way to raise the $31.4 trillion borrowing limit – before deciding if they need to insert themselves into the process.
Senate GOP Whip John Thune, McConnell’s top deputy, said his leadership team wants to give House Republicans “some space” to find a deal with the White House.
“At least for right now, knowing that in the end it’s going to have to be something that House Republicans and the president agree on, is to see what they can figure out,” the South Dakota Republican said Monday. “That’s going to be the best strategy for us.”
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said some senators may toss around ideas to find a way out of the standoff. But he quickly added: “Ultimately, I think it’s going to have to be negotiated between the House and the White House.”
“I’m waiting to see the House move and lead, and we’ll follow it,” Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican and another member of McConnell’s leadership team, told CNN.
McConnell declined to elaborate on his thinking on Monday. But he projected confidence that Congress would somehow avert a first-ever default.
“We won’t default,” the Kentucky Republican told CNN as he walked into his office.
The early posturing resembles the 2011 battle when a new House GOP majority fought tooth-and-nail with a Democratic president as Republicans tried to use the matter as leverage to enact their priorities, which Senate Democrats were poised to ignore. The fight led to the country’s credit rating being downgraded before a deal was later reached to raise the borrowing limit and slash spending across domestic and defense programs, even as some of those cuts were later reversed.
This time, in the run-up to winning the speaker vote on the 15th ballot, McCarthy promised his conservative members to only allow a debt ceiling hike if there’s a fiscal agreement or if they win “commensurate fiscal reforms,” though the plan is light on specifics. Instead, McCarthy has demanded that President Joe Biden sit down and negotiate a deal to raise the debt limit – a position the White House continues to reject. If McCarthy backs off that demand and moves a debt ceiling hike without concessions sought by his members, any one lawmaker can seek a vote for his ouster from the speakership under the deal he cut to win the job.
“It was done three times in the past administration under Donald Trump, so this is nothing unusual,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday, reiterating demands for Congress to raise the debt ceiling without any strings attached. “This is something that should be done without conditions.”
That position, however, has received some friendly fire.
“It’s not responsible,” Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said Monday of the White House’s position. “This is a democracy. We have to talk to each other.”
While the debt ceiling has been raised or suspended 61 times since 1978, it is not unusual for lawmakers to use the matter as leverage to try to get what they want. But they are often forced to back down, given that the borrowing limit must be raised to pay bills already owed.
In the last Congress, McConnell called on Democrats – who controlled the House and the Senate – to raise the debt ceiling by their votes alone, namely by using a budget process that cannot be filibustered and can be approved on a straight-party line vote. Democrats balked at that demand.
McConnell then floated another way: Pass a new law that allowed Democrats to use a one-time process to raise the debt ceiling on their own votes. Democrats agreed. It was similar to another plan the GOP leader pushed forward when Barack Obama was in the White House: To allow for the debt ceiling to be increased even as Congress formally voted to disapprove of that move, an attempt to give lawmakers some distance from the politically treacherous vote.
This time, however, Republicans are signaling that the Senate GOP is unlikely to be driving the party’s strategy.
“Right now, it’s a fight between House Republicans and the president – so I’m not sure we want in that fight,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican.
If the impasse does not end, the calculus could change.
Some believe that a Senate deal could be reached and would receive 60 votes to break a filibuster, but only if McConnell is on board. At that point, a House vote could occur if 218 members sign a “discharge petition” and force a floor vote in that chamber, meaning at least six Republicans would have to join 212 Democrats. But that time-consuming process rarely succeeds, and several swing-vote House Republicans say they won’t go for that effort – at least not yet.
“That’s the absolute last option,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican who hails from a swing district and is working on a bipartisan deal on the issue.
CNN’s Nicky Robertson contributed to this report.