But Democrats would be wise not to confuse McConnell with someone who cares about such pressure or might be embarrassed into folding his cards because his current stance conflicts with past positions.
“The majority doesn’t need our votes,” McConnell said Monday.
“I suggest that our colleagues get moving,” he added, further cementing his reputation for granite-like immovability once he has settled on a political strategy.
McConnell’s approach works
The kind of rigid resistance to political heat McConnell is displaying in the current showdown recalls his stubborn persistence in depriving ex-President Barack Obama a chance to fill an open Supreme Court seat in 2016.
As Obama complained that historically it has “not been viewed as a question” that Supreme Court nominees would get a vote, then-Senate Majority Leader McConnell refused to grant his pick Merrick Garland even a hearing, claiming a custom that constitutional requirements governing Supreme Court picks were suspended in the final year of an administration. But when liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died weeks before the last election in 2020, McConnell conjured an exception to his own rule to seat Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett. An extraordinary torrent of outrage from liberals about the inconsistency and hypocrisy at play didn’t move McConnell an inch. His legacy is secure in the marble-pillared Supreme Court chamber.
In another example of McConnell’s willingness to put the pursuit of power before principle, he vigorously condemned Trump for inciting the Capitol insurrection and the invasion by a mob of his beloved Senate. His comments triggered speculation that he might finally cut Trump loose and bury the former President’s hopes of reviving a political career that complicated McConnell’s own.
But when political expediency and the hope of winning back the Senate in 2022 — and the need to avoid alienating Trump’s base voters required it, he voted against convicting Trump in his impeachment trial over the outrage.
In demeanor, intellect and temperament, McConnell could hardly be more different than Trump. But his willingness to compromise constitutional principles for power is squarely in line with a Republican Party that in recent years has shown that there are no limits on its aggressive hunt for dominance in Washington.
Holding the economy hostage
But on such a complicated issue, nuance and the truth are easily obscured in sloganeering and partisan media. The GOP wants to convince the country that the Democrats are spending it into bankruptcy and are alone responsible for racking up a national debt that now sits at nearly $29 trillion.
McConnell wants to force Democrats to use reconciliation to raise the debt ceiling on their own without Republican votes because it would complicate the already treacherous task of passing Biden’s $3.5 trillion social spending plan, which is crucial for the success of his presidency. Republicans are not even trying to hide what they are doing — namely holding the economy and wellbeing of millions of Americans ransom to dent the Democratic agenda.
“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,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the GOP leadership, told CNN’s Manu Raju on Monday.
The Republican argument, however, that the debt ceiling needs to be raised to pay for Biden’s program is a false one. It would need to be extended to pay for existing obligations incurred by Congress even without any more government spending. The claim by Democrats that their current plans will all be paid for by tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy is yet to be independently tested.
Not only are GOP senators refusing to offer any votes for raising the borrowing limit, they are committed to using the Senate filibuster so Democrats can’t quickly and easily accomplish it with a quick majority vote in the 50-50 Senate — an openly hypocritical move.
McConnell used minority Democratic votes in previous bipartisan budget deals to share the pain of lifting the debt ceiling. But that’s now forgotten by the minority leader, as are his past statements that playing games with America’s credit should be avoided.
For example, in hailing a bipartisan budget deal in 2019 that also raised the debt ceiling, McConnell, then the majority leader, said the measure secures “our Nation’s full faith and credit and ensures that Congress will not throw this kind of unnecessary wrench into the gears of job growth and a thriving economy.”
Why the debt ceiling must be raised
But in the narrow calculations of the Senate minority leader, that would all be Biden’s fault — and would likely further wound an already-wobbling presidency. And in the end, McConnell is probably calculating that Democrats would never let it get that far and would have to compromise their own goals given the disastrous impact of a debt default.
Still, given McConnell’s well-earned reputation for being impervious to political shame and pressure, Senate Democrats ought to face questions over why they waited so long to act. Playing chicken with the senator from Kentucky is usually a losing proposition.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer appears to have been trying to play a McConnell-style game himself to saddle Republicans with intense pressure to act to avoid disaster. The question now is if the New York senator would allow the economy to go over the cliff to see whether his bet that the GOP would pay a price is right.
Schumer said on Monday that it was imperative to get a bill raising the debt ceiling to Biden’s desk by the end of the week — and he’s lining up a vote on a bill already passed by the House that would do so.
“We aren’t asking Republicans to support it when it comes time for a vote. We only ask that they get out of the way as Democrats pass it on our own,” Schumer said.
But with the certainty that Republicans will not play ball, the bill will fall short of the filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes — and will further spook the markets and observers watching the US with alarm from abroad.
And in the end, McConnell has the advantage since by holding the White House and both chambers of Congress, the Democrats have the institutional responsibility to act — even though, as usual, the Senate minority leader appears to be the one wielding power.