This Is The Dumbest Debt Ceiling Standoff

Republicans have no demands, but Democrats still won't just get rid of the debt limit.

WASHINGTON ― The standoff over the debt ceiling involves no honest debate about fiscal responsibility or Senate tradition. It’s a purely political fight with no actual policy substance. 

Senate Republicans say they won’t vote to let the federal government pay its bills because Democrats are the bigger spenders so they should do it themselves. 

The truth is Congress has to give the federal government more borrowing authority to pay for spending that both Republicans and Democrats supported, and Republicans are just using the debt limit to vent their feelings about the Democrats’ legislative agenda and cut some campaign ads. 

The silliest thing about the debt ceiling standoff is that there’s no constitutional need for lawmakers to approve spending one day, and then at a later time, have to vote again to let the federal government pay for the spending they already approved.

In fact, Congress could get rid of the debt ceiling, but Democrats have been unwilling to go there — at least so far. Some Democrats have talked about making the debt limit an exception to the Senate filibuster, effectively killing it for all time. But all Democrats would have to agree, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), for one, has said he doesn’t like the idea. 

On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans would allow Democrats to pass a short-term debt limit increase that would delay default until December.

Senate Democrats had planned to hold another a vote Wednesday on breaking the Republican filibuster that’s preventing a simple majority vote on a longer debt limit extension. Democrats indicated they would probably accept a short-term debt limit extension, postponing the fight until December.

If Congress ever failed to deal with the debt limit, the Treasury would start to default on debts, failing to pay some bondholders and potentially triggering an economic crisis, since Treasury securities serve as a benchmark for borrowing costs throughout the financial system. In a prolonged standoff, beneficiaries of programs like Social Security could miss monthly payments.  

Congress has fought over the debt ceiling in the past. In 2011 and 2013, Republicans demanded spending cuts as the price of avoiding a default. Democrats did not make any significant demands during the Donald Trump administration, however, and Congress suspended the limit three times. Now Republicans are not returning the favor, and their only demand is to see Democrats squirm. 

The absurdity of the situation came into sharper focus this week. Republicans have said Democrats should handle the debt limit on their own, but have filibustered Democratic attempts to bring up the debt ceiling for an up-or-down vote. Democrats control 50 votes in the Senate, and Vice President Kamala Harris would break the tie, meaning no Republican would have to support the measure.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) addresses reporters following a weekly Republican policy luncheon Tuesday. McConnell reiterated his belief that the Senate should pass legislation to raise the federal debt limit through a process called reconciliation.
Anna Moneymaker via Getty Images

Instead, Republicans want Democrats to use a complicated “budget reconciliation” process that will allow a final vote only after a potentially unlimited number of votes on GOP amendments designed to maximize Democratic divisions.

McConnell said Wednesday that his offer for a short-term debt limit extension until December would only serve to give Democrats time to deal with the debt limit as part of their broader budget reconciliation bill. He said Republicans wouldn’t obstruct the process as much as they could. 

In any event, the end result would be the same: 50 Senate Democrats voting to lift the debt ceiling, the same threshold as a simple up-or-down vote Republicans are currently blocking. One would simply take more time than the other. 

McConnell said Tuesday, however, that it would not be possible to get unanimous consent from Republicans to proceed to a regular vote.

“I can’t imagine that would happen,” he said. 

In other words, Republican leaders say they could corral consent for reconciliation but are simply unable to get an agreement for one vote. They want the longer process partly because taking up time has an opportunity cost for Democrats, since they can’t confirm judges or pass legislation. And the budget reconciliation process could force Democrats to set the debt limit at a specific trillion-dollar threshold, something that Republicans could use in attack ads in the next election. (Under regular order, lawmakers can just “suspend” the limit without choosing a number.)

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told HuffPost he would favor some kind of permanent debt ceiling reform, but that there’s not enough time to do it now. 

“We need to get through this short-term crisis,” he said. 

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