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Democrats scramble as the GOP gloats over a potential economic meltdown

Raise the debt ceiling, avert a shutdown, approve trillions in spending, all in the next few days? Yikes.
Photo illustration: A pile of money has a reflection in the shape of the US Capitol dome.
This is going to be a terrible ride.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Congress, in all its arcane, archaic beauty, has one main job: managing the country’s money. The power of the purse being in the hands of our directly elected representatives is vital to democracy. Unfortunately, this is a job that Congress is increasingly bad at.

Some of this is because of a rich history of bad faith partisan maneuvering on the part of the Republican Party — especially when they’re in the minority, as they are now. Some of it’s due to self-imposed limits that nobody particularly in either party likes but can’t bring themselves to get rid of. And partially the difficulty is due to some, if not many, members of Congress lacking a big-picture view of their work.

Examples of all three will be rushing together in the coming days and weeks, as Congress debates spending new money, paying for old spending and the fun twist of newish spending accidentally blocking future spending on an old program if nothing changes. The tumult leaves Democrats hustling to pass President Joe Biden’s agenda, Republicans gloating ahead of a potential economic meltdown and an uneasy sense that a legislative train wreck is in our near future.

The tumult leaves Democrats hustling to pass President Joe Biden’s agenda, Republicans gloating ahead of a potential economic meltdown and an uneasy sense that a legislative train wreck is in our near future.

On the first front, House Democrats are racing to get two priorities over the finish line: one, a smaller bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate in August; the other, a budget reconciliation package that would invest $3.5 trillion over the next 10 years in fighting climate change, providing free community college, lowering prescription drug costs and other liberal and progressive promises.

But Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is facing a revolt from a small group of moderates who are intent on passing the bipartisan bill by Monday at the latest. Though, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., has repeatedly said more than half of her 95 members would vote against that bill if it were brought up before the larger budget package, which is still incomplete. Either faction has the power to tank the whole kit and caboodle, leaving the whole caucus empty-handed after months of work.

Biden is trying to bring together the two sides of the House fracas, but Wednesday’s White House meetings came and went without any firm commitment from the moderates to back down — or even a revised top-line number they’d support in the budget package. “The lawmakers walked out of the White House with nothing in hand but chocolate chip cookies, individually wrapped in gold with a presidential seal,” NBC News’ Jonathan Allen wrote Thursday.

What makes their resistance particularly baffling is that nobody is asking for this show of stubbornness from them. Not the voters in their safe Democratic districts. Not the party leadership, who want to work with the progressives and White House on this. And not the majority of Americans, who are actually in favor of the spending package’s provisions. If anything, their reluctance to sign on with the majority of the party is making voters more likely to view all Democrats as extremists.

Even if things are smoothed out in the House, there are still problems to work out in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Thursday that Democrats had worked out "an agreement on a framework that will pay for any final negotiated agreement," whatever that means. But Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., has threatened to bomb the whole reconciliation package if the House doesn’t vote on Monday as promised. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is also trying to convince his fellow senators to hit pause on the larger spending package as well as slashing its size.

That would be a lot to grapple with all by itself — but things are much worse than that. We’re also weeks away from the U.S. Treasury Department being unable to pay the debts America racked up in the last few years under former President Donald Trump. Two weeks ago, I predicted (like a dang idiot) that Republicans would see that, unlike in 2011 and 2013, this time around there’s little for them to gain for refusing to raise or suspend the debt ceiling. Joke’s on me, though: I underestimated Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his capacity for dickishness.

It’s not just paying for previous spending that has a deadline. Oh no, that would be too easy.

McConnell has insisted the onus is on Democrats to raise the debt ceiling on their own and encouraged his caucus to vote against any provision that does so. It’s a total reversal of his normal view of minority rights in the Senate, putting the entire burden of governance on the majority. This obstinance is coming despite the Moody's Analytics chief economist predicting that a prolonged debt ceiling impasse would “cost the U.S. economy up to 6 million jobs, wipe out as much as $15 trillion in household wealth, and send the unemployment rate surging to roughly 9 percent from around 5 percent,” as The Washington Post reported.

And it’s not just paying for previous spending that has a deadline. Oh no, that would be too easy. The end of fiscal year 2021 hits Oct. 1, and if Congress doesn’t pass a continuing resolution — aka, a bill that says, “Keep acting like spending levels are the same for now, thanks” — before then, we get a government shutdown.

The good news: The House passed a continuing resolution Tuesday, one that also includes a lot of money for disaster relief in states with GOP senators. It also has attached to it a provision to suspend the debt ceiling until after next year’s midterm elections. Basically, it’s killing two birds with one stone.

But, surprise! Continuing resolutions are subject to the filibuster, which means 10 Republicans would actually need to be responsible and join Democrats in voting for it. House Budget Committee Chair John Yarmuth, D-Ky., on Wednesday said there’s not enough time to either attach the debt ceiling suspension to the reconciliation package or to write a stand-alone bill that can pass ahead of the point of no return. That means the bill currently awaiting action in the Senate is the only game in town.

So, there’s McConnell’s stubbornness at work again, potentially providing for a government shutdown and an inability to pay for Trump’s spending at the exact same time. And, as a cherry on the sundae, Bloomberg reporter Steven Dennis is sounding the alarm that Democrats might be facing massive cuts to Medicare in an election year — cuts that the Democrats made possible a decade ago.

In 2010, the Democrats were afraid of GOP attacks in the midterms that they spend too much, too recklessly and enacted a law that triggers automatic cuts if legislation increases the deficit. That includes Biden’s Covid-19 stimulus — and without 10 GOP votes to declare that new spending an emergency, Dennis explained, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that a $36 billion cut to Medicare will spring into place next year.

To quote Bruce Banner in “The Avengers”: This all seems … horrible. Normally in this situation, I’d advocate — yet again — for ditching the filibuster in the Senate. That would at least provide the ability to abolish the debt ceiling entirely and fix the Medicare situation. But that would only solve some of America’s problems. The GOP is threatening to shoot the economy in the head, while moderate Democrats are threatening to shoot themselves and the rest of their party in the foot. There’s only a few days to work this out, so we’re really going to need everyone to get their act together ASAP.