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The lie at the heart of Ted Cruz's dangerous debt ceiling strategy

Ted Cruz plans to filibuster an extension of the debt ceiling. His rationale is based on a rather obvious lie.


In theory, there's no cause for alarm. Congress needs to prevent a government shutdown, address the debt ceiling and provide emergency disaster relief funding, which is why Democratic leaders have packaged the priorities into one bill that they intend to pass before the deadlines. The circumstances are identical to those seen four years ago this month, when the issues were resolved — in a bipartisan way — without drama.

In practice, however, Congress' Republican minority has said it will not support the bill, regardless of the consequences for the country. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reiterated again yesterday, "I've explained this clearly and consistently for over two months: We do not have divided government. Democrats do not need our help. They have every tool to address the debt limit on their own."

That's partially true. Democrats have a majority in the House, a majority in the Senate and control of the White House. If Republicans, for whatever petty reason, insist on withholding GOP support from the must-pass bill, the measure can still pass.

That is, unless Republicans in the Senate filibuster the bill, effectively telling Democrats, "You must pass this legislation on your own, and we won't allow you to pass this legislation on your own."

Sen. Ted Cruz indicated last week that he intends to push the nation closer to a deliberate, self-imposed crisis, and as NBC News reported yesterday, the Texas Republican isn't backing away from his threat to crash the economy on purpose.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, promised to filibuster it, saying there is 'no universe' in which he would consent to allowing a simple majority vote on extending the debt limit.

The GOP senator added that extending the debt limit would make it "easier for [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer and the Democrats to add trillions more in debt."

That doesn't make any sense. [Update: See below.]

There are plenty of members of Congress who are badly confused about the substantive details of governing. As a rule, Cruz isn't one of them. I've long argued that the Texas Republican's principle political problem is not that he's dumb, but rather, that he assumes everyone else is dumb.

His comments on the debt ceiling capture the problem nicely. As Cruz surely knows, raising the debt ceiling allows the United States to pay its bills, not to clear the way for new spending. The process is about paying for the stuff Congress already bought in the past, not giving lawmakers approval to buy new stuff in the future.

The GOP senator, in other words, is preparing to block important legislation — a bill that would prevent the United States from defaulting on its obligations for the first time in our history — based on a rather obvious lie.

If Cruz follows through on his gambit and his effort succeeds, the results would be catastrophic. As The Washington Post's Catherine Rampell explained in her new column:

The government would have trouble paying Social Security checks, military salaries and all the creditors who'd previously lent money to Uncle Sam. A default would also violate the Constitution, which says 'the validity of the public debt of the United States ... shall not be questioned.' Finally, it would trigger chaos throughout the global financial system. Financial markets currently treat U.S. debt as virtually risk-free, with all other assets benchmarked against it. If we demonstrate that our debt is not really risk-free — that we're instead cavalier about repaying our creditors — panic would tear through other markets as well.

Again, Cruz knows this. So do McConnell and many other congressional Republicans. They've decided to play with matches anyway, even if it's their own country's economy that burns.

There's still time for cooler heads to prevail. Indeed, Cruz can play his dangerous game, but it'll fail if other GOP senators derail his scheme and allow Democrats to hold an up-or-down vote on the bill before it's too late.

The clock is ticking. Watch this space.

Update: I heard from Dave Vasquez, the senator's press secretary, who said in an email, “Your summary of the GOP position being 'You must pass this legislation on your own, and we won't allow you to pass this legislation on your own,' isn’t just misleading, it’s factually wrong. The GOP cannot filibuster the reconciliation process and pretending we’re somehow in gridlock because the Democrats are deliberately choosing not to take the wide open lane is a farce. In fact, failing to mention that Democrats have a filibuster-proof route readily available to them is intentionally deceiving.”

I fleshed out what this is all about in a separate post that's available here.