GOP's next "debt limit" fiasco: McConnell issues a frightening empty promise

Mitch McConnell says Congress will take care of the debt limit. Sounds good! Here's the tiny problem

Published March 10, 2015 4:43PM (EDT)

Mitch McConnell                           (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Mitch McConnell (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The day after the 2014 midterm elections, the Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed by Mitch McConnell and John Boehner in which the two men, who were just weeks away from sharing leadership duties in the new Congress, promised that things were going to be different. “We are humbled by this opportunity to help struggling middle-class Americans who are clearly frustrated by an increasing lack of opportunity, the stagnation of wages, and a government that seems incapable of performing even basic tasks,” they wrote, gliding right past the fact that they were the primary authors of all that frustrating gridlock. But that was then! The new, empowered GOP was going to show it could govern.

One near-shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security later and we’re still waiting for pro-governing wing of the Republican Party to assert itself. And McConnell, ever the optimist, is still gamely making the case that it’s going to happen. He sat down with Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation” this past weekend and argued that – the past two months notwithstanding – the era of shutdowns and debt-limit brinksmanship is over:

SCHIEFFER: Quick question. Treasury Secretary Lew sent a letter to Congress last week saying that debt limit will reach the ceiling Monday.

Are Republicans going to vote to lift the debt ceiling?

MCCONNELL: Well, the debt ceiling will be handled over a period of months. The secretary of the treasury has a number of what we call tools in his toolbox.

I made it very clear after the November election that we're certainly not going to shut down the government or default on the national debt. We will figure some way to handle that. And, hopefully, it might carry some other important legislation that we can agree on in connection with it.

It’s interesting to see McConnell talk about the debt limit this way. Not too long ago he was an enthusiastic proponent of playing chicken with the debt ceiling and parlaying the threat of an economic crash into policy concessions from the White House – the debt limit was “a hostage that’s worth ransoming,” as he memorably put it in 2011. As Steve Benen points out, the White House’s policy of refusing to budge an inch on debt limit negotiations helped blunt the GOP’s mania for hostage-taking, at least temporarily. Both Boehner and McConnell caved on the debt ceiling last February and advanced “clean” legislation to raise the debt limit. They argued at the time that it was in the national interest (“My job is to protect the country when I can,” McConnell said), though the underlying factor was that Republicans couldn’t agree on which policy fight they wanted to pick. So it’s tempting to view McConnell’s comments from this weekend as a reassurance that the debt limit won’t be seriously imperiled.

But I’m not really one to trust Republican leaders on this score. When McConnell says we’re not going to default, I’d like to believe him. But he also promised there'd be no threat of a shutdown on his watch, and he joined every other senior Republican in promising that DHS would be funded. Then he set about doing pretty much everything he could to ensure it wouldn’t be funded before he changed course at the last possible second and bowed to political reality. The threat of unified opposition from the Democrats in Congress and the president did nothing to dissuade him.

It may be the case that McConnell is harboring some hope of using the threat of a debt limit fight to fracture that Democratic opposition and put pressure on Obama. He left open the possibility that Congress could “carry some other important legislation that we can agree on in connection with” the debt limit, and his strategy going forward is to try and split Democrats with legislation on wedge issues. But here again, the DHS fight has left him with fewer options. Democrats know that they can prevail if they hold the line, so even if there are Democrats who agree with McConnell and the GOP on a given issue (as there were during the DHS funding fight) they can force him to tackle it without taking the debt limit hostage.

Also, while McConnell may insist that there won’t be a default, it’s not entirely his decision to make. Yes, Republican leaders have caved on the debt ceiling before, but now they control both houses of Congress and hardcore conservatives with massive chips on their shoulders and a kamikaze attitude towards governing are going to want to start fights and get results. Boehner’s control over his own caucus is slim to nonexistent, and McConnell has rabble-rousers of his own to contend with. Also, Republicans have figured out that they can play the shutdown game and not pay too much of a political price for it – who’s to say they won’t do the same for defaulting on the debt?

Anyway, I’m glad McConnell is out there telling the world that Congress will govern responsibly and take care of the debt limit. There’s no reason to risk short-circuiting the recovery or throwing the country into another financial crisis over a fight the Republicans are almost certain to lose anyway. I just also wish McConnell and the rest of the Republican leadership didn’t have a consistent record of breaking these promises.

By Simon Maloy

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