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Republicans use debt ceiling and infrastructure as cudgels to derail Democratic agenda


It’s not unusual for the minority to resist whatever the party in power is doing. But when it comes to both the debt ceiling and infrastructure, Republicans don’t actually oppose the substance of what Democrats are trying to accomplish. Instead, Republicans believe they are extracting maximum political pain from Democrats and showcasing divisions within the Democratic ranks that will make voters believe President Joe Biden’s party is incapable of governing ahead of next year’s midterms.

Republicans aren’t even sweating the blowback for being labeled as hypocritical, obstructionist or irresponsible. In fact, they feel confident that Democrats will bear the blame for bringing the nation to the brink of economic catastrophe.

“How could we get in any trouble, when they’ve got 50 votes and the vice president to break (a tie)? All they got to do is put it up, vote on it,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, a senior Iowa Republican. “Why would we even be involved with it?”

Democrats are excoriating Republicans for refusing to lift a finger to address the debt ceiling as the nation barrels toward a fast-approaching October 18 deadline, arguing there’s a bipartisan responsibility to help pay down debts that were incurred by both parties during the pandemic. If the nation’s borrowing limit isn’t raised by then, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned the nation will default on its debts for the first time ever — a scenario that would roil the markets, spike interest rates and create job losses.

“Republicans say they will not do their part to avoid this needless calamity. So be it. But they need to stop playing Russian roulette with the US economy,” Biden said in a blistering speech Monday.

McConnell not blinking

McConnell, however, is completely unmoved. The Kentucky Republican sent Biden a letter on Monday urging the President to pressure his party to deal with the issue on their own, once again making clear that the GOP won’t supply the votes. Republicans have also circulated a memo highlighting when Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer voted against raising the debt ceiling in the early 2000s.

Republicans want to force Democrats to address the debt limit through reconciliation, a special budgetary tool that would only require a simple majority to clear the Senate.

“The majority doesn’t need our votes. They just want a bipartisan shortcut around procedural hurdles they can actually clear on their own, and they want that shortcut so they can pivot right back to partisan spending as fast as possible,” McConnell said Monday from the Senate floor.

In the Senate, the strategy on the debt ceiling isn’t a secret. McConnell said it months ago — he expected Democrats to take this burden on by themselves.

It’s also a double whammy. By forcing Democrats to raise the country’s borrowing limit on their own through a complex budget process, Republicans would be given two opportunities to put Democrats on the record in marathon voting series known as vote-a-ramas.

Biden says he can't guarantee debt ceiling lift due to 'hypocritical, dangerous and disgraceful' GOP opposition

That same unwieldy process would also require Democrats to say exactly how much they need to increase the debt by, a number that could haunt lawmakers up for reelection.

“They have to put the topline in there and show the American people what they are doing. That’s a strategy and that’s part of it,” said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top GOP appropriator. “The American people ought to see the number.”

It all fits into Republicans’ ongoing narrative for the midterms that Democrats are reckless at managing the country’s finances and are driving up inflation.

“I think Americans are fed up with this government spending,” said Sen. Rick Scott, the chairman of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm. “So if you talk to people, they see the Democrats’ spending is causing inflation.”

But Democrats have so far refused to go the reconciliation route, for the same reason that Republicans are pushing for it: reconciliation is a complicated, time-consuming process that would suck up precious oxygen during a critical time period for Democrats, who are racing to strike an agreement on their massive economic bill before the end of the month.

“I’m not going to say anything’s impossible but the consistent message from our caucus is that will take additional time, series of votes and delay, which is exactly what McConnell wants. He knows the outcome,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

There is, however, another option that wouldn’t require GOP support: Democrats could bring the debt ceiling to the floor, and Republicans could just agree not to filibuster it. But that would take unanimous cooperation and some Republicans have already ruled that out — another sign they’re using the debit limit as a cudgel to derail the Democratic agenda.

“After demanding that Democrats provide the votes to suspend the debt ceiling, we made it clear last week repeatedly we were willing to, and they’re still blocking us,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and one of Biden’s closest allies in the Senate. “This game of chicken is irresponsible and dangerous.”

Republicans have also dismissed the idea of negotiating some sort of compromise with Democrats in exchange for hiking the debt ceiling.

“There’s no reason for us to help facilitate bad policy that we disagree with, and so they have to eat up little floor time passing the debt ceiling through reconciliation, that’s fine with me,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of GOP leadership.

Schumer teed up a vote on a bill to suspend the debt ceiling that is certain to fail amid GOP opposition, but Democrats have not yet outlined a “Plan B,” although the New York Democrat warned that work over the weekend and recess break is possible. Democrats need to act soon if they are going to use reconciliation, which could take two weeks or more, which would bump up against the mid-October deadline.

When asked on Monday if he could guarantee the US won’t hit the debt ceiling, Biden told reporters: “No I can’t — that’s up to Mitch McConnell.”

Republicans argue it’s not about politics, but policy: they don’t want to give Democrats the green light to spend trillions of dollars to expand the social safety net and fight climate change. And they’re betting that a message of fiscal conservatism will play well with their conservative bases back home, and that they won’t get dinged for refusing to raise the debt ceiling.

But increasing the nation’s borrowing limit would only enable the government to pay for past debts already incurred — including spending that was racked up under Trump — and wouldn’t prevent future spending. Still, that hasn’t stopped the GOP from arguing otherwise.

“They want all the spending. They just have to vote to raise the debt ceiling. It’s all their money. We’re not for it,” said Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican. “They have the power to do it.”

‘All bets are off’ on infrastructure

The GOP’s unwillingness to cooperate with Democrats has also seeped into the debate over the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Even though the package garnered the support of 19 Senate Republicans, including McConnell, House GOP leaders launched an all-out campaign to limit the number of Republicans voting for it on their side of the Capitol.

Only a dozen or so Republicans were expected to vote for the bill, which contains funding for widely popular infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, airports and broadband. It was supposed to receive a floor vote last week, but was delayed amid Democratic divisions.

Now, the handful of House Republicans who publicly said they would back the legislation are rethinking their votes, saying it’s clear that the infrastructure bill is linked to Democrats’ economic bill.

“All bets are off,” said Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican who had planned to vote for the bill.

Republicans — keenly aware that the passage of infrastructure and the economic bill may be Democrats’ best hope for keeping their majorities next year — want to ensure that they won’t be the reason the infrastructure bill gets over the finish line. If it does, it would not only secure a key victory for Biden, but also potentially hand Democrats momentum to advance their broader economic agenda.

Republicans argue that their strategy going forward isn’t even necessarily to block Democrats as much as it is to watch them fight within their ranks.

“They are in the mud. We are just kind of watching them root around in the mud so let them fail on their own,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican.

After two weeks of deep schisms within the Democratic Party over the contours and cost of their infrastructure and social safety net bills, Republicans believe they may not have to intercede much at all to block Democrats’ agenda.

“My theory is you never want to be in the room when someone is committing suicide. That is not a story you want to be part of. We aren’t doing anything. They have their own knife fight internally. Why would we get in the way?” said Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina.

“I am not sure we have done anything to put them in the boxes they are in.”

Manu Raju and Jessica Dean contributed to this story.

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