Congress has less than three weeks left to raise the debt limit before the U.S. government runs out of money, something that’s never happened before and would translate to economic disaster for the entire country.
But there’s no plan on how to get this done in the Senate, where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) keeps saying that Democrats, led by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), are on their own and that it’s totally normal for Republicans to stand in the way of doing this.
“The facts are that the majority party has had in the past, in this situation, to raise the debt ceiling by themselves,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday. “The last time that happened, during [President George W. Bush’s administration], both Schumer and [then-Sen. Joe] Biden voted against raising the debt ceiling. So, there is no tradition of doing this on a bipartisan basis.”
He added, “Sen. Schumer and now-President Biden were in exactly the same position, in reverse, during the Bush years. They handed us the opportunity to raise the debt ceiling one-party only. Around here, almost everything comes around.”
But the GOP leader is wildly mischaracterizing what Republicans are doing right now, which is far more dangerous than he’s letting on. He’s simply hoping that people aren’t paying attention or don’t know what he’s talking about as the U.S. government inches closer to defaulting on its debt obligations.
McConnell is arguing that because Democrats voted against raising the debt limit in 2006, when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress, it’s no different than Republicans forcing Democrats to raise the debt limit by themselves this time around.
It is very different. In 2006, Democrats agreed to a request by then-Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to let the Senate increase the debt limit by a simple majority vote, or 51 votes, instead of requiring 60 votes to break a filibuster. That ensured that Republicans had enough votes to raise the debt ceiling themselves, by a vote of 52-48. Getting it done was never in doubt.
That’s not the case today. Republicans voted this week ― twice ― to prevent Democrats from raising the debt ceiling on their own. On Monday, they filibustered Democrats’ bill to do it, meaning they denied Democrats the 60 votes needed to move forward with the bill. On Tuesday, Republicans rejected a request by Schumer to let the Senate increase the debt limit by a simple majority vote ― the same request Democrats agreed to when Republicans raised the debt ceiling themselves in 2006.
On Wednesday, Schumer called out McConnell for his bad-faith argument as Democrats scramble to figure out how to raise the debt limit with the GOP standing in the way.
“We are not asking them to vote yes. If Republicans want to vote to not pay the debts they helped incur, they can all vote no,” he said on the Senate floor. “We are just asking Republicans: Get out of the way. Get out of the way when you are risking the full faith and credit of the United States to play a nasty political game.”
The government is on track to run out of money on Oct. 18. Congress has to vote before then to increase the amount of money the government is authorized to borrow to meet its existing legal obligations. Those includes obligations like Social Security and Medicare benefits, military salaries, interest on the national debt and tax refunds.
All of those payments are at risk if the debt limit isn’t lifted. The U.S. could plunge into an immediate recession, according to one analysis, and a prolonged impasse over the issue could cost the economy up to 6 million jobs, erase as much as $15 trillion in household wealth, and boost the unemployment rate to roughly 9% from its current level of 5%.
The House passed a bill on Wednesday to suspend the debt limit through December 2022. It’s all on the Senate now.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned congressional leaders on Tuesday that even as it gets close to Oct. 18 without legislative action, there’s an increasing chance of economic damage.
“We know from previous debt limit impasses that waiting until the last minute can cause serious harm to business and consumer confidence, raise borrowing costs for taxpayers, and negatively impact the credit rating of the United States for years to come,” Yellen said. “Failure to act promptly could also result in substantial disruptions to financial markets, as heightened uncertainty can exacerbate volatility and erode investor confidence.”
Somehow, McConnell insists he agrees that the debt ceiling must be raised as he leads Republicans in blocking Democrats’ efforts to do it.
“Of course the debt ceiling has to be raised,” he told reporters Tuesday. “They have a way to do it. I gave them two months’ notice as we’ve all explained why we chose not to participate in it this time.”
He’s referring to an August letter, signed by 46 Republicans, stating that they won’t help to raise the debt ceiling in protest of Democrats’ spending plans.
But that’s also a bogus argument, which they know. A vote to raise the debt ceiling is like paying a credit card bill: It’s for spending that happened in the past, not the future.
The GOP’s demand in their letter that Democrats use the Senate’s reconciliation process to raise the debt ceiling ― a process that requires only 51 votes ― is also no good, as Schumer has already said that would be too complicated, too risky and too time-consuming given the urgency of the matter.