In the summer of 2011, congressional Republicans did something American lawmakers had never done before: they held the nation’s debt ceiling hostage. Indeed, GOP lawmakers, en masse, told the White House that if President Obama didn’t accept Republican demands, they would crash the economy on purpose and force a default.
The quote was largely overlooked at the time, but Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate Republicans’ leader, thought the GOP-imposed crisis was terrific. Once the ceiling had been raised, McConnell boasted about doing it again in the future, saying that Republicans learned this is “a hostage that’s worth ransoming.”
That was in August 2011. Nearly four years later, McConnell finds himself as the Senate Majority Leader, and to his credit, his posture has changed. Consider this exchange from yesterday’s “Face the Nation,” after host Bob Schieffer asked about the nation’s borrowing limit.
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.
All of this happens to be true. On Friday, Jack Lew told Congress that the nation would reach its debt limit in about a week, at which point the Treasury Department would begin its “extraordinary measures,” which in practical terms means moving money around to pay our bills. Congress effectively has until the fall to meet its obligations and prevent a catastrophe, and Lew urged lawmakers to be responsible.
McConnell, who ruled out national default as a credible alternative literally the day after the 2014 midterms, made a similar point yesterday. The Kentucky Republican conceded on CBS that he and his party will simply have to figure something out.
That’s reassuring to those of us who hope to avoid a deliberate economic crash, but it’s also a reminder of how effective President Obama’s leadership has been on this issue after the White House’s misstep in 2011.
Four years ago, Obama assumed, incorrectly, that he could work constructively with congressional Republicans on bipartisan solutions. When it came time for a debt-ceiling increase, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and McConnell said they would hurt Americans on purpose without a ransom, and the president played along because he thought they could all find some common ground and strike a broader agreement.
Those assumptions were incorrect, and ever since, Obama has held true to a specific principle: when it comes to the debt ceiling, he will pay no ransom and play no games. Since 2011, when Republicans have hinted at the imposition of new crises, the president has responded swiftly: Forget it.
And GOP leaders have had no choice but to adapt. Two years ago this month, Boehner publicly conceded, “I’m not going to risk the full faith and credit of the federal government.” It was a remark that gave away the game – when GOP lawmakers suggested soon after that it was time to hold the debt ceiling hostage, it was for naught. The Speaker had already made clear that his party wouldn’t follow through on the threats.
McConnell is now doing the exact same thing. That doesn’t mean we won’t see some attempted drama, but with GOP leaders ruling out default, they’re making clear they have no intention of hurting the hostage, which means there’s no point in taking the hostage in the first place.