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Why Do Senate Republicans Want To Help Democrats Raise The Debt Limit—Again?

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A dozen years ago, I sat in a strategy meeting in an ornate suite in the U.S. Capitol. House Democrats were about to bring to the floor a bill that would raise the deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars, one element of their plan to ram through Obamacare.

When one person suggested that House Republican leaders rally Tea Party groups to ensure all Republican members oppose the legislation, another aide thought such a move unwise, fearing a whipping operation against the bill would prove ineffective.

The response: “So in other words, your strategy is to lose in the most efficient manner possible.” Which pretty much describes Republican leaders’ perpetual strategy—then, now, and most always.

That mantra explains news reports prior to the Thanksgiving holiday suggesting Senate Republican leaders were working on an arrangement with Democrats, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., that would allow Democrats to raise the debt limit in December for the second time in three months. Most Republican lawmakers want to see the debt limit raised, and are perfectly willing to make it easy for Democrats to increase the limit—so long as Republicans don’t have to take public responsibility for their complicity in this corrupt bargain.

Debt Limit Leverage and Hostages

Consider the following:

  1. The national debt has approached $29 trillion—that’s $29,000,000,000,000—with no signs of slowing down.
  2. Democrats continue to work to ram through a massive spending bill (a.k.a. “Build Back Bankrupt”) that the Congressional Budget Office concluded will raise the debt—and further stoke rising inflation—by $791.6 billion in its first five years
  3. Given the Senate’s current rules and makeup, Democrats have virtually no leverage to raise the debt limit on their own. Republican lawmakers keep claiming Democrats have the votes to raise the debt limit themselves, but for procedural reasons (explained in detail here), that statement simply is not true. Absent an agreement with Republicans, Schumer has but two options: Abolish the Senate filibuster—which Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V. and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have said they will not do—or allow a default. That’s it.
  4. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has previously supported tying the debt limit to other legislation, saying in 2011 that the debt limit represented a “hostage worth ransoming.”
  5. House progressives spent the past three months holding the infrastructure bill that McConnell supported hostage, insisting that “moderate” Democrats pledge to vote for Build Back Bankrupt before allowing the legislation to pass the House—this after McConnell in June demanded that Democrat leaders would not hold the bill hostage.

Given all these elements—rising debt, strong Republican leverage over the debt limit, and recent history giving Republicans every reason to hold out for legislative concessions—what does McConnell want to do? To judge from the press reports, give Democrats a streamlined process for approving a debt limit increase—without receiving any substantive concessions in response.

Where’s the Fight?

But an accelerated process for Democrats to raise the debt limit won’t just affect that issue. The debt limit represents one of the “must-pass” pieces of legislation Congress needs to clear by year’s end—the same deadline Democrats have set to pass the Build Back Bankrupt legislation.

Any time on the Senate floor that Democrats have to spend passing the debt limit represents time they’re not passing the multi-trillion-dollar spending bill. Conversely, making the debt limit easier for Democrats to pass will only enable and empower them to pass Build Back Bankrupt as well, a point that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. made after the last debt limit fight in October.

It would be one thing if McConnell and Senate Republicans agreed to speed up the debt limit process in exchange for assurances from the likes of Sinema and Manchin that they would rebuff efforts by Schumer to pass Build Back Bankrupt in December (or ever, for that matter). But giving up on the debt limit without any substantive concessions on the spending bill makes a mockery of McConnell’s July claim to put up “a hell of a fight over what this country ought to look like in the future” with respect to Build Back Bankrupt.

Here as before, Republican leaders want to lose in the most efficient manner possible. It’s enough to make conservatives despair for actual leadership in Washington.