Terry H. Schwadron

Dec. 1, 2021

That nasty partisan Congressional fight over the need to raise the federal debt is back, the next deadline looming by mid-month, with no good prospects in place for resolution.

All that is at stake is the credibility of the country to pay its bills, but that seems secondary to pursuit of immediate partisan political goals. The only surprise this time around the never-ending, Washington spending merry-go-round is that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly working with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to wink the problem away.

Indeed, as The Hill.com reports on the machinations towards a Dec. 15 showdown, there are worse Republican egos to bruise than McConnell’s to avoid a meltdown of the U.S. economy and beyond through failure to meet our national credit obligations. Senators like Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah apparently are ready to throw their bodies in front of any effort to get 10 Republicans to join the Democrats in passing a bill in regular order to raise the debt limit.

The debt ceiling is an artificial limit that recognizes spending already approved rather than the proposals for big new spending coming from the Joe Biden White House. But it is a traditional, well-worn avenue for senators of one party to blame those of the other for raising federal spending limits.

Technical Hurdles Galore

The obvious solution here is that Democrats act by themselves under the special “reconciliation” process, but it opens the way to tedious, technical vote-a-ramas on amendments, relevant or not, that take up time and effort towards no end but politics.

It also would force the Democrats to list a new specific number for the debt, a move that would come back in the form of political ads all next year and put its most vulnerable members at re-election risk.

The other alternative, which the Senate used a couple months ago, was to delay.

According to The Hill, both McConell and Schumer want to avoid another standoff that could threaten the nation’s credit rating, and they have cooled their mutual criticisms. McConnell and Schumer actually met for the first time since January to agree to keep talking about solutions.

Expediting the process would require getting unanimous consent from all 100 senators, which is certain not to happen. Cruz and other individual Republicans even are holding up normal appointments to State Department diplomatic posts merely to promote their anti-Biden chops.

And then there is Donald Trump, kibitzing from Mar-a-Lago to knock McConnell for having allowed for the debt vote delay in the first place. Apparently, even national financial ruin is good if it promotes Trump and blocks Biden.

Cruz, Paul, and Lee all oppose the pending $2 trillion Build Back Better bill and want to see it defeated or seriously cut. So, the debt ceiling fight becomes a partisan weapon, as always.

The Strategist Who Can’t

At heart, McConnell, a master strategist, can’t find nine Republicans to join him again again to get the measure over a 60-vote requirement.

So, the backroom talk probably involves both procedural moves and some way to make it look as if McConnell is getting a concession to keep Trump off his back. According to a Republican operative, McConnell just wants to avoid being embarrassed.

For his part, Schumer doesn’t want to quibble about future spending for passage of what should be routine acknowledgment of spending already enacted. And he wants to keep pressure on the Senate to act by Christmas on Biden’s outstanding proposals for social spending and climate.

Republican senators like John Thune have pushed for future spending changes, while Mitt Romney is suggesting that the Treasury Department stand on its head and push the deadline later, as if that would change the conversation.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin has noted that the delay legislation in October did not reset the extraordinary measures that Yellen used last time to postpone a default and that recent passage of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill requires a $118 billion transfer to the Highway Trust Fund by Dec. 15.

Of course, Democrats could pursue a rule change by challenging the Senate filibuster rules, but at least two Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, oppose doing so.

This debt ceiling debate is a mess, and as policy legislation, it has absolutely no reason to hold our attention. It is all about political muscle.

What the hell, it’s only the national default at stake here.



Journalist, musician, community volunteer