Portrait of a fiend in the wild: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it abundantly clear that there will be no Republican votes to avert the looming debt ceiling crisis. McConnell’s feckless rationale? “Let me make it perfectly clear,” he declared last week. “The country must never default. The debt ceiling will need to be raised. But who does that depends on who the American people elect.”
Translation: Because Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House, they alone are responsible for raising the debt ceiling. Simply put, no such rule exists, nor has it ever existed. It was certainly not in play back in 2019, when then-Majority Leader McConnell sought — and received — bipartisan support on the very same issue. “The people in Kentucky who know him,” notes long-time Democratic foe Rep. John Yarmuth, “understand that he can’t be shamed into changing.”
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen made the stakes clear in a Sunday Wall Street Journal editorial. “The U.S. has never defaulted. Not once,” she wrote. “Doing so would likely precipitate a historic financial crisis that would compound the damage of the continuing public health emergency.” In 2011, even the (McConnell-driven) threat of a default sent the economy reeling. Combine the impact of default with what looks to be another COVID winter gnawing into the economy, and a tidy little recipe for disaster awaits.
McConnell seemingly could not care less. His interest appears entirely political and utterly without shame: He wants his people to go into the 2022 midterms with “tax-and-spend liberals” on every tongue. The same Republicans who aided the Trump administration’s wild financial giveaways to corporations and the wealthy now intend to use the economy itself against President Biden’s legislative attempt to address climate change and expand the social safety net, and all as a means of regaining the majority.
McConnell has plenty of help in this particularly nefarious endeavor; shamelessness, like gold, seems to have its own gravitational pull. “The Democrats have added enormous amounts of debt,” echoed GOP Sen. Susan Collins, “including the $1.9 trillion package, now $3.5 trillion on top of that, so they bear the responsibility for increasing the debt limit.” Never mind the stimulus package probably saved the economy during the most dire portion of the pandemic, or that Collins herself voted to explode the debt multiple times during the Trump years.
One disaster of this magnitude would usually suffice, but at present there are multiple meteors hurtling toward us. Congressional Democrats, seeking to use whatever leverage is available, are tying the debt vote to the also-looming vote to fund the federal government. If McConnell holds the line, there will be insufficient votes to pass either (assuming the inevitable GOP filibuster), and we could be looking at a double-barreled fiscal calamity at midnight on September 30.
With less than 11 days to go before that whole fiasco hits the zero hour, Democrats are also facing the threat of collapse within their own caucus. Joe Manchin, the coal baron senator from West Virginia, has used his swing-vote muscle to position himself and the Energy Committee he chairs as the authors of the climate provisions in Biden’s massive budget bill. He is widely expected to throw a number of lifelines to the energy interests that pour campaign cash into his own pockets, and it is entirely possible the Progressive Caucus could bolt rather than vote for a polluted compromise.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has joined a trio of pharmaceutical industry-bought House members in refusing to support the Medicare/prescription drug reforms that are crucial to funding the overall legislation. “The Arizona Democrat is opposed to the current prescription drug pricing proposals in both the House and Senate bills,” reports Politico. “They added that, at this point, she also doesn’t support a pared-back alternative being pitched by House Democratic centrists that would limit the drugs subject to Medicare negotiation.”
In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is facing a perilous September 27 deadline that could potentially sink both the budget bill and the infrastructure bill. Conservative Democrats, at the frantic urging of an army of corporate and business lobbyists, want the two bills voted on separately. That way, they can pass the watered-down infrastructure bill and then kill the budget bill. The Progressive Caucus has vowed — if somewhat vaguely — to defeat the infrastructure bill if both are not combined into a single package for passage, and they have more than enough votes to do it. Whether they will follow through on the threat is the question of the hour, and that hour is up on the 27th unless they bump the deadline.
Finally, the Senate parliamentarian has scotched the immigration provisions within the budget bill, ruling they do not fit the requirements for reconciliation — a tactic that allows a bill to pass by simple majority if it affects the budget. The parliamentarian last ruled “No” on the attempt to include a minimum wage hike in the $1.9 trillion stimulus package back in February.
Progressive Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are among those demanding that Majority Leader Schumer ignore or replace the parliamentarian, as the GOP did the last time such a decision went against them. “An unelected person isn’t a real barrier to the much-needed investments we were elected to make,” Tlaib wrote on Twitter. “Ignore this ruling or get a new one. The GOP didn’t hesitate when they pushed their corporate agenda.”
A number of prominent Democrats made the TV rounds on Sunday, trying to put a happy face on the roiled circumstances. “We’re going to have to work it out, as we did with the American Rescue Plan,” Sen. Bernie Sanders told CBS News. “Now is the time to stand up to powerful special interests. Now is the time to start representing working families.” Ultimately, he predicted that, “because of the pressure of the American people we’re going to come together again and do what has to be done.”
Let’s hope he’s right. The axis of McConnell, Manchin, Sinema and the House Pharma Dems are hard at work even at this moment, and it is going to be a wild week in Washington. Halloween could be a genuinely terrifying holiday, when the people learn to their sorrow that vampires are not just real, but are pulling down government paychecks.