Mitch McConnell's debt limit bluff: The Senate leader knows he has no leverage, but he has to pretend

Mitch McConnell is making fake plans to force cuts to Social Security in exchange for a debt ceiling increase

Published October 15, 2015 9:59AM (EDT)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)  (AP)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File) (AP)

John Boehner’s abrupt decision to resign as Speaker of the House has taken most of the drama out of what was threatening to be a dangerous few weeks of thoroughly unnecessary political brinksmanship. Boehner no longer has to worry about his political future, and so when it came time to pass a bill to fund the government for a few more months, he was free to ignore the extremists in his own party who were calling for a government shutdown to defund Planned Parenthood. He’s a man liberated.

Of course, the government shutdown was only one of the potential crises currently facing Congress. There’s also the question of the debt limit, which, according to the Congressional Budget Office, will have to be raised within the next month or else we will “default on the government’s debt obligations.” In the past, Republicans have tried to use the threat of debt default to try and force policy concessions from the White House, only to back down and eventually abandon the tactic altogether.

Back in February 2014, Boehner glumly conceded that there was no utility in trying to take the debt ceiling hostage and moved to pass a clean extension with most of his own caucus voting against the bill. This time around he’s under no political pressure to fight the White House, and is apparently more concerned about removing a potential land mine from his successor’s path. According to Politico, Boehner and the House leadership are already largely resigned to passing another clean extension. “GOP leadership aides have discussed passing a standalone debt limit bill should the talks break down. Many senior Republican aides and lawmakers see a ‘clean’ debt limit bill as the only real option.”

So there isn’t really a great deal of mystery as to how this situation will ultimately be resolved. And that’s why it’s a bit puzzling to see Boehner’s counterpart in the Senate, majority leader Mitch McConnell, making plans to force a debt-limit showdown. According to CNN, McConnell is drawing up a list of pie-in-the-sky agenda items that he apparently wants to squeeze out of Democrats in exchange for an increase to the debt limit: cuts to Social Security, raising the eligibility age for Medicare, and “new policy riders… reining in the Environmental Protection Agency's clean water regulations.” Slash the welfare state and deregulate polluters, or the debt ceiling gets it!

This is the second-worst bluff I’ve ever seen. Several months ago, McConnell said this on CBS: “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.” Back when he said that, it was more of an open question as to whether he’d be able to follow through on those promises, given the dysfunction in the House and Boehner’s inability to control his own caucus. Those questions have been resolved to a certain degree by Boehner’s resignation and, as we’ve already seen, his determination to resolve the debt ceiling question as quickly and cleanly as possible. Is McConnell really going to try and force a debt limit showdown when the party is hopelessly fractured and the outgoing Speaker is more interested in clearing the decks for his replacement?

It’s hard to see why McConnell would go down that road, especially since McConnell recognizes the high-risk, low-reward nature of these showdowns. He was bluntly opposed to a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood, calling it an “exercise in futility” that wasn’t going to aid the Republican cause of restricting access to abortion rights. He knew that Senate Democrats retained filibuster power and President Obama’s veto pen hovered over everything, so there was no point in pretending that they could force a favorable outcome. So does he really think a debt ceiling showdown would shake out any differently?

Well, as it turns out, he doesn’t think that. From the same CNN report:

McConnell's chief deputy, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, said in a recent interview that he's ready to raise the debt limit "until 2017" in order to get the matter off the table during an election year. McConnell, sources say, feels the same way, and the two sides are discussing the possibility of raising the debt limit until March 2017, just two months after a new president and Congress are sworn in.

So why is McConnell even talking about attaching conditions to the debt limit increase? He’s probably doing it as a token demonstration to his own restive caucus members that he’s at least trying to put up a fight. At the end of the day, it’s in both Boehner’s and McConnell’s interests to raise the debt ceiling, and the easiest path – really the only path – for them is to pull in Democratic votes to sidestep the hardliners within their own ranks. That’s how past debt limit fights have ended, and that’s how this one is going to end.

By Simon Maloy

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