IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

McConnell readies his debt-ceiling ransom note

There's an important flaw in Mitch McConnell's debt-ceiling hostage strategy: we already know he won't shoot the hostage.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) arrives to take questions from members of the press following a weekly policy luncheon with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 13, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) arrives to take questions from members of the press following a weekly policy luncheon with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 13, 2015 in Washington, D.C.
The debt-ceiling deadline has not yet arrived, but it looms on the horizon. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told Congress recently that lawmakers have until Nov. 5 -- three weeks from tomorrow -- to extend the nation's debt limit and prevent a default that would likely crash the economy.
President Obama has already made clear that he will not negotiate with those threatening to hurt Americans on purpose, just as he won't make any demands of his own -- Congress needs to protect the full faith and credit of the United States, and when it does, the president will put his signature on the clean debt-ceiling increase.
And yet, according to CNN, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is already preparing his ransom note, telling the White House what Republicans expect the president to give up in exchange for GOP lawmakers agreeing to do what they have to do anyway.

Mitch McConnell privately wants the White House to pay this price to enact a major budget deal: Significant changes to Social Security and Medicare in exchange for raising the debt ceiling and funding the government. [...] McConnell is seeking a reduction in cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security recipients and new restrictions on Medicare, including limiting benefits to the rich and raising the eligibility age, several sources said. In addition, the Kentucky Republican is eager to see new policy riders enacted, including reining in the Environmental Protection Agency's clean water regulations.

This doesn't come as too big of a surprise. In 2011, in a quote that was largely overlooked at the time, then-Senate Minority Leader McConnell conceded that he saw the debt-ceiling crisis Republicans imposed on the country -- hurting the economy and undermining America's international standing -- as a great idea. Once the ceiling had been raised and the crisis had passed, McConnell boasted about doing it again in the future, saying that Republicans learned this is “a hostage that’s worth ransoming.”
There is, however, a catch: these dangerous schemes only work if your rival believes you're fully prepared to kill the hostage -- and in this case, McConnell lacks all credibility.
Let's back up for a minute. McConnell, like every other policymaker in Washington, realizes that the debt ceiling has to be raised periodically. It's not optional -- either the nation's borrowing authority is increased or we default on our obligations. It's as simple as that.
McConnell, however, apparently has a wish list. He'll agree to do what needs to be done -- what officials in both parties have always done for generations -- if Obama gives Republicans Social Security cuts, Medicare cuts, and more pollution. And possibly a pony. In exchange, Democrats would get nothing.
McConnell could try to pass legislation through Congress achieving his goals -- you know, the way the legislative process is supposed to work in the United States -- but he doesn't want to. The Republican leader thinks it would be easier to circumvent the process, come up with a ridiculous ransom list, and threaten to crash the economy unless the GOP's demands are met.
And who knows, maybe McConnell will keep up this posture for a while as the deadline approaches. But those of us with decent memories and/or access to Google know he's bluffing.
We can say this with some confidence because McConnell has already admitted it. As recently as March, the Republican Senate leader told a national television audience, "[W]e’re certainly not going to shut down the government or default on the national debt." A few months before that, McConnell said on the record, “There will be no government shutdown or default on the national debt."
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has also publicly conceded, “I’m not going to risk the full faith and credit of the federal government.”
What we have, in other words, is a situation in which a GOP leader is threatening to take a hostage -- which in this case is our economic health -- after already telling everyone he has no intention of harming the hostage.
Why would Obama even consider paying a ransom under such circumstances? The answer, obviously, is he wouldn't.
Nor should he. The moment the president starts rewarding politicians who threaten to hurt Americans on purpose, he creates an incentive for radicalized lawmakers to keep deliberately putting us in harm's way whenever congressional Republicans decide they want something that can't otherwise become law.
It's entirely possible, if not likely, that McConnell knows all of this and he's going through the motions for the sake of partisan theatrics. The Senate Majority Leader wants to be able to tell his GOP members and his party's base that he came up with the ransom note, but that rascally president refused to reward Republicans for doing what they have to do anyway.
But the game of brinkmanship is nevertheless absurd. We'd all benefit if McConnell just skipped the ransom note and prepared to pass the bill he already knows he'll have to pass eventually.