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Democrats May Tie Disaster Relief to Raising Debt Ceiling, Putting GOP in a Bind

September is shaping up to be either a battle for the ages or a capitulation that seals the downward-spiraling deal.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on September 8, 2021.

If you were to take every bad move by the Democratic Party and its politicians over the last four decades — every failed attempt at leadership, every waffle, every retreat, every horrid bill created to make Republicans like them (hint: they never will) — and poured that noisome soup into a Captain America vita-rays chamber set to “reverse,” Joe Biden is what would emerge.

Biden has been in the game for every fiasco Democrats have stumbled through since Ronald Reagan frightened their collective wits into ashes. Biden himself is a perfect avatar for the phenomenon: His crime bill, his banking bill, his Iraq War vote, his AUMF votes, his PATRIOT Act vote, his misogyny-laden treatment of Anita Hill — name a decade since 1981, and there were Biden and his fellow Democrats, almost never failing to fail.

I do not say this to throw dirt on the president. These things I note are known, as is the general temperament of your average long-serving Democrat. They spent so many years trying to be like the very Republicans they found so terrifying that appeasement became their most prominent trait. This soul-numbing characteristic remains in place today, but if I’m hearing the rumblings correctly, the Democrats appear to be squaring up for one hell of a fight, at last.

The debt ceiling crisis is upon us once again. Refresher: This is the vote that ensures the U.S. will make good on its debts. It does not involve any new spending, but puts “the full faith and credit” of the U.S. behind what we have already spent.

This was a no-brainer passing vote since time out of mind until 2011, when Mitch McConnell took it hostage during the fight over the Affordable Care Act. Even the threat was enough for ratings agency S&P to downgrade our fiscal reliability in 2011, and the economy shuddered ominously in response. Now, if the U.S. defaults on the debt ceiling in this perilous pandemic moment, the economic consequences could be dire to say the least.

Despite the peril, Republicans have shown no hesitation in returning to this particular well, and this year is no exception. Facing a fusillade of progressive Democratic legislation, McConnell announced that there would be no Republican votes to avoid defaulting on the debt ceiling this year. “If our colleagues want to ram through yet another reckless tax and spending spree without our input,” said McConnell last week, “if they want all this spending and debt to be their signature legacy, they should leap at the chance to own every bit of it.”

When they ran this number on President Obama multiple times, the president was able to call their bluff because the consequences of following through on the threat were terrifying. It’s a little bit like Mr. Burns stealing the sun from Springfield in The Simpsons; the reckless evil of it beggars cogent explanation.

This new, Trump-radicalized pack of Republicans, however, may be exactly irresponsible enough to try and execute the hostage. Most years, even the possibility would have Democrats rushing to be conciliatory, but maybe, just maybe, not this time. House Speaker Pelosi has made it abundantly clear that any debt ceiling vote will not come as a stand-alone, but will be stapled to some other crucial piece of legislation.

This dovetails neatly with the other game of chicken being played out in Washington, D.C., over avoiding (yet another) looming federal government shutdown. Forecasters have stated the government will run out of operating funds some time in October. In its proposal to keep the government operating, the Biden administration is requesting funds for disaster relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.

If the pieces fall together just so, and the debt ceiling is added to a bill that keeps the government running and assists those in distress from the storm, Republicans will find themselves in a tremendous bind. “The combination would present a triple threat,” reports Politico, “daring GOP lawmakers to go on record in opposition to aid for disaster-hit communities, staving off a debt default that could throw financial markets into chaos and preventing a government shutdown.”

Some will no doubt shrink at the idea of playing political hardball with money meant to help storm victims, but it is precisely that brand of ruthless certitude that has allowed Republicans to run (or stall) the country as a minority party for the third Democratic presidential administration in a row. There’s no doubt that disaster relief will pass one way or another, and in the meantime, doing this puts the Republicans on record for voting to basically burn the country down to the stumps. That seems to be what a lot of elected GOP officials want, but it isn’t likely to play well come ballot-casting time.

This sudden vigor for victory also seems to have invaded the fight over Biden’s $3.5 trillion budget-climate bill. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, playing the role of plaque in the arteries of progress, has flapped his kill-shot vote at Democratic leadership, laying out a list of demands that would leave the historic bill with no beating heart at all. House Majority Whip James Clyburn then hopped on the Manchin bandwagon, suggesting Biden’s $3.5 trillion bill could accomplish its goals at $2 trillion, at which point simple mathematics loaded itself into a giant rubber band and shot itself into space.

Manchin and Clyburn got a nifty bundle of here’s-your-hat from a variety of fellow Democrats in response, most significantly from the majority leader. “We’re moving full speed ahead,” said Chuck Schumer. “We want to keep going forward. We think getting this done is so important for the American people.” Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders said, “That $3.5 trillion is already the result of a major, major compromise.” Rashida Tlaib tweeted simply, “$3.5T is the floor.”

The debt ceiling, funding the federal government, storm relief, and a budget bill that may salvage the future from its apparent flood-and-fire-raddled fate… all hanging on the stomach Democrats have for the fight. We’ve all been here before, or have we? Stay tuned; the second half of September is shaping up to be either a donnybrook for the ages, or a capitulation that seals the downward-spiraling deal.

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