Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell has a history of finding ways out of a devastating debt default.
It may be different this time – at least for now.
In the face of the riskiest debt-ceiling standoff in a dozen years, Senate Republican leaders plan to take a backseat role and let the newly empowered GOP majority in the House try to find a way out of the impasse with the White House, a gambit with high stakes, but one that underscores the new power structure in divided Washington.
McConnell and his leadership team are wary of undermining the position of the House GOP and see little chance of success if they attempt to reach an agreement without Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s express blessing. About four months before fears of a default worsen dramatically, Senate Republicans say they will sit back and watch the House GOP maneuver a way to raise the $31.4 trillion credit limit — before they do decide whether they need to interfere in the process.
Senate GOP whip John Thune, McConnell’s top deputy, said his leadership team wants to give House Republicans “some room” to find an agreement with the White House.
“At least now that we know it’s going to have to be something that House Republicans and the President have to agree on at the end of the day, they’ll have to see what they can figure out,” the South Dakota Republican said Monday. “That will be the best strategy for us.”
Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, said some senators may throw around ideas to find a way out of the stalemate. But he was quick to add, “Ultimately, I think it has to be negotiated between the House of Representatives and the White House.”
“I’m waiting for the House of Representatives to move and lead, and we will follow it,” Senator Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican and another member of McConnell’s leadership team, told CNN.
McConnell declined to elaborate on his reasoning Monday. But he projected confidence that Congress would somehow avert an initial default.
“We’re not going into default,” the Kentucky Republican told CNN as he entered his office.
The early stance is similar to the battle of 2011, when a new GOP majority in the House of Representatives fought a Democratic president tooth and nail as Republicans attempted to use the matter as leverage to impose their priorities that Senate Democrats were too were willing to ignore. The fight resulted in the country’s credit rating being downgraded before an agreement was later reached to increase the credit limit and cut spending on domestic and defense programs, though some of those cuts were later reversed.
This time, in the run-up to winning the 15th-round speaker vote, McCarthy pledged to his Conservative members not to allow a debt ceiling hike unless there is a tax deal or if they win “proper tax reforms,” though the plan is light on specifics. Instead, McCarthy has urged President Joe Biden to sit down and negotiate a deal to raise the debt limit – a position the White House remains opposed to. If McCarthy backs off that demand and delays a debt ceiling hike without concessions demanded by its members, any lawmaker can solicit a vote for his ouster from the speakership under the deal they struck to win the job.
“It was done three times in the past administration under Donald Trump, so it’s not unusual,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday, repeating the call for Congress to raise the debt ceiling without any strings attached. “This is something that should happen unconditionally.”
However, this position has received friendly fire.
“It’s not accountable,” Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said Monday of the White House position. “It’s a democracy. We need to talk to each other.”
While the debt ceiling has been raised or suspended 61 times since 1978, it’s not uncommon for lawmakers to use the matter as leverage to try to get what they want. But they are often forced to back down as the credit limit has to be increased to pay bills that are already due.
At the last Congress, McConnell urged Democrats – who controlled the House and Senate – to raise the debt ceiling by vote alone, using a budget process that cannot be influenced by filibusters and can be adopted by a direct vote. The Democrats rejected this request.
McConnell then took a different tack: Pass new legislation that would allow Democrats to raise the debt ceiling by their own votes in a one-off process. Democrats agreed. It was similar to another plan the GOP leader pushed forward when Barack Obama was in the White House: to allow the debt ceiling to be raised even if Congress formally voted to disapprove the move, an attempt to give lawmakers some distance from the Politics procure treacherous voting.
This time, however, Republicans are signaling that the Senate GOP is unlikely to push the party’s strategy forward.
“Right now, it’s a fight between House Republicans and the President — so I’m not sure we want to be in that fight,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana.
If the impasse doesn’t end, the calculus could change.
Some believe a Senate agreement could be reached and would get 60 votes to break a filibuster, but only if McConnell is on board. At that point, there could be a vote in the House of Representatives if 218 members sign an “exoneration bill” and force a vote in that chamber, meaning at least six Republicans would have to join 212 Democrats. But this time-consuming process is rarely successful, and several swing-voting House Republicans say they won’t afford the effort — at least not yet.
“This is the absolute last option,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican who hails from a swing district and is working on a bipartisan agreement on the issue.