“We are unfortunately ready for another – frankly steeper – cliff. And it’s not my preference,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.). Although she doesn’t want to set the precedent to save the minority party from tackling of the debt ceiling, Slotkin admitted that reconciliation “may end where it is.”
That’s news to most Senate Democrats, unnamed Joe Manchin or Tim Kaine, two outliers in an upstairs caucus that is firmly opposed to tackling debt without GOP votes through reconciliation. There is a growing call for Senate rules to change to limit the minority party’s influence on the borrowing limit, which Manchin currently opposes. And the reality among Democrats’ lean majorities is that while all corners of the party are concerned about the next conflict, no one knows how it will play out.
sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a centrist like Murphy, said Schumer’s message to McConnell should be simple and consistent: “You want to play those damn games with the economy? … It is up to you.”
“I strongly oppose it being done on the basis of reconciliation. I think it’s stupid. I think it’s bad,” Tester said in an interview before the debt ceiling compromise last week. He added that “the problem with the filibuster exception is, by all accounts, the filibuster would be done” if a debt division were made.
“And the second is, you still have a Manchin-Sinema problem” getting 50 votes to change the rules of the chamber, Tester said, referring to Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
Democratic leaders hate the idea of using atonement for the debt ceiling for two main reasons: because that’s what McConnell wants and because it would set a precedent for future majorities to raise the ceiling themselves. Future Republican majorities would no doubt struggle to avoid default with only GOP votes under that precedent, given their party’s divisions on the issue.
McConnell said he won’t help Democrats again in December; he barely gave 11 votes to promote a debt ceiling hike and faced a major backlash at his conference for offering Schumer a last-minute lifeline. That leaves Democrats without a solution to what will become their biggest problem in two short months, headaches intertwined with their frenzied pursuit of completing President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda and keeping the government funded.
“It will not be more difficult to solve it in December. It won’t get any easier. But we’ve changed our priorities,” Kaine said. The Virginian insisted that the Democrats will not allow default.
Among House Democrats, there is some fatigue about being trapped between Schumer and McConnell. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not ruled out using reconciliation to address the issue, and her No. 2, majority leader Steny Hoyer, said this week he supports the idea.
Most house moderates have been clear from the start about their primary goal in ending the debt drama: vote just once to end the crisis. The opposite has happened.
First House Democrats passed a government financing bill that also raised the debt ceiling during interim terms, which McConnell rejected. Then they approved a clean increase in the debt ceiling, which Republicans were supposed to filibuster but weren’t ultimately forced to reject.
In the end, the House Democrats had to eat a short-term extension — and a guarantee that they’ll have to rethink an issue that could very well appear in midterm strike ads as Democrats try to add another major spending bill related to climate change. , child care and education priorities.
“For frontliners, it’s almost a lose-lose situation to have to vote at the end of the year,” said outgoing centrist Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), describing the plight in which the debt ceiling places the endangered Democratic incumbents. “You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
In the House it may be politically difficult to raise the debt ceiling, but it is relatively easy to pass legislation – even if the party implements reconciliation. The House can pass it under normal circumstances by a simple majority and avoid giving the GOP too much procedural leverage, even under the arcane rules of the budget process.
Even the most prudish centrists would team up, in part because of a deal in late September with Pelosi’s leadership team that assured they would tackle the debt issue in a future vote.
But Senate Democrats must tangle with the filibuster if debt-ceiling legislation passes through the mainstream, giving Senate Republicans the power their House counterparts lack. And if the Democrats used reconciliation, their party’s senators would be subjected to a painful floor debate that includes an unrestricted vote — all to set a precedent for raising the debt ceiling on party lines.
That has led Democrats to consider changing the rules, or even abolishing the debt ceiling altogether. As Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) put it, “A jerry-rigged workaround shows how necessary a permanent fix is.”
“There was an acknowledgment from all Democrats that this was different,” said Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.). The party is stunned, he added, at “the idea that you would even have a filibuster about something that is pure process.”
Still, Manchin says he can’t be moved on the filibuster, even when it comes to the debt limit. Sinema has not said publicly where she stands, but has so far opposed any changes to the 60-vote threshold required by the chamber to pass most bills. That leaves the Democrats short of votes to change the filibuster rules, though McConnell keeps a close eye on the two moderates to make sure they don’t wiggle.
In the meantime, the only offer McConnell has to Democrats is to use the coming weeks to prepare a long-term debt increase and pass it in December.
He “gives the Democrats the time they’ve asked for. Their only argument for not doing this through atonement is that they had no time, too many obstacles. Now they have plenty of time,” said Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).
The problem? Senate Democrats say they won’t use their newfound breathing room to work on the debt ceiling, even if more House Democrats point out they’d be okay with joining McConnell.
Instead, Senate Democrats say they are focused on closing a deal on Biden’s social spending bill. But negotiators remain wide apart on even a top-line deal, as lawmakers openly battle each other over both the size and scope of the social infrastructure package.
That can leave a second-to-last-ditch band-aid as the best remedy for a new threat of default.
“My fear is that’s going to happen,” said D-Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono. “My hope is that it isn’t.”