The Senate GOP would like no part in raising the debt ceiling — the federal borrowing limit that must be raised by roughly $2 trillion to keep the country out of default. That is, if you believe their rhetoric. Their actions, however, say otherwise.
This week, while insisting they are doing no such thing, Senate GOP leaders are, in fact, aggressively contorting themselves to make sure the debt ceiling is once again raised — and they're going to absurd lengths, including cracking at the foundation of the legislative filibuster, to obfuscate their role in making this happen.
According to reports, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have agreed to a classic, albeit craven, "uniparty" scheme. As part of a larger bill to stave off scheduled cuts to Medicare spending, the House and Senate will agree to a provision that sets up a special, one-time, filibuster-exempt, 51-vote resolution to raise the debt ceiling.
To put it more specifically, at least 10 Republicans will vote with Democrats to provide the 60 votes necessary to pass the Medicare legislation, which provides for a privileged resolution that circumvents the filibuster and allows Democrats to raise the debt ceiling with just 51 votes.
In the twisted world of Washington, D.C., politics, this allows McConnell and the Senate GOP to claim they are technically keeping their pledge not to raise the debt ceiling after they vote for a bill creating the opportunity for Democrats to do it for them. What’s more, the legislation allows the Democrats to raise the debt ceiling to whatever amount they choose. Literally, the bill provides a blank space for the number to be filled in. Presumably, they could insert the symbol for infinity, and Republicans would still happily tee up for the vote for them. Yes, I told you it was craven.
It’s also cynical, in that the entire obfuscation gambit relies on the GOP base being fooled. But don’t be. The real vote — that is, the vote that allows the debt ceiling to be raised — is not for the resolution that actually does it but for the Medicare bill that makes it possible. That is, the vote that matters is for the bill that at least 10 GOP senators will vote for, claiming it doesn’t raise the debt ceiling when it actually provides the means to do just that.
But there’s another element to this that makes the whole exercise absurd. In agreeing to this construct, McConnell, joined by Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, both of whom have gone on record endorsing the approach, are conceding to something Democrats have been arguing for all year: that the legislative filibuster can, in fact, be cracked.
Democrats, many of whom support upending the legislative filibuster entirely, have also argued that, at the very least, the filibuster should have special, 51-vote exceptions for certain “worthy” pieces of legislation, such as their massive election meddling bill.
The Senate GOP, which has flatly rejected these calls, is now on record agreeing to the premise: for issues with uniparty support, the process for a special, one-time, statutory carveout of the filibuster can now be willed into existence.
This is very different from the 51-vote procedures that already exist in statute, such as the budget reconciliation process we’ve been hearing so much about lately. Reconciliation rules allow narrowly tailored legislation, subject to a host of restrictions, to pass the Senate at 51 votes — but only after the chamber has passed a budget and gone through a grueling unlimited amendment process known as a vote-a-rama.
For a time, Senate Republicans demanded Democrats use reconciliation procedures to pass the debt ceiling — a strategy they would stick to if they were serious about making Democrats go it alone.
But in establishing a one-off exception for the debt ceiling, McConnell will not only have made it far easier for the debt ceiling to be raised with Republican support, but he will also have given Democrats a politically preferential precedent to demand similar filibuster carveouts in the future — for climate change, gun control, amnesty, take your pick.
All of this, remember, is simply to create the illusion that Senate Republicans are opposed to raising the debt ceiling, to cloak their true motivation behind layers of Senate procedure they’ll deem too complicated for you to understand.
But the reality is the same as it’s always been. Both the Republican and Democratic establishments want the debt ceiling to be raised. But because this is Washington, and no one has the guts to vote for what they actually support, they have to twist themselves into pretzel-like shapes to hide that fact from voters. Craven and cynical, which makes it oh-so-classical Washington.