In recent weeks, much of the focus on Capitol Hill has been over Democrats negotiating how best to advance the White House's Build Back Better agenda. Yesterday, that focus shifted dramatically to a very different kind of challenge. NBC News reported midday:
President Joe Biden on Monday sought to ratchet up pressure on Republicans to work with Democrats on raising the debt limit, accusing Republicans of playing "Russian roulette" with the U.S. economy. Biden warned Americans that if Congress failed to act, mortgage rates would increase, retirement savings would go down and the U.S. could lose its financial credibility around the world. He called on Republicans to allow a vote on the debt ceiling this week.
When Republicans like Florida Sen. Rick Scott first started pushing for a debt-ceiling crisis in April, it seemed like an abstraction because the threat only existed on the horizon. That luxury is now over: The Treasury Department has told Congress that the United States will begin defaulting on its obligations in just 13 days. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has told members that he expects the chamber to resolve the matter this week, and he's already scheduled a vote for tomorrow on a clean bill passed by the House last week.
For his part, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote to the White House yesterday, making clear that his Republican members will not vote to allow the United States to pay its own bills, and insisting that Democrats use a specific legislative procedure to defuse the GOP's bomb: the budget reconciliation process.
As we discussed last month, it's a critically important detail: Republicans aren't just telling Democrats to extend the debt ceiling; Republicans want to force Democrats to extend the debt ceiling in a very specific way.
This is where the writing on the hostage note comes into focus: Republicans want to dictate the terms, giving the Democratic majority instructions as to how to prevent the GOP from causing a deliberate economic catastrophe.
And why, prey tell, are Republicans obsessed with forcing Democrats to govern through an obscure legislative procedure? Senate Minority Whip John Thune effectively gave away the game yesterday, telling NBC News, "The way to do it if they want to do it at 51 votes is to do it through reconciliation, which requires them to specify a number."
The details get a little wonky, but there's a subtle policy difference between extending the nation's borrowing authority by suspending the debt ceiling until a specific date in the future and raising the debt ceiling by a specific amount of money: The former doesn't set a dollar amount and the latter does.
And so, if Republicans can force Democrats to extend the debt ceiling by making them vote on a scary-sounding figure — say, $30 trillion, instead of $28 trillion — GOP operatives believe it will create a more potent political weapon.
In other words, Republicans are threatening the full faith and credit for the United States because they're looking for a new toy to play with in the 2022 midterms. It's a reminder of just how far the contemporary GOP has gone from serving as a governing party.
As for the road ahead, Congress is noticeably short on options.
Congress can simply extend the debt ceiling in a clean bill. Republicans have said they will use a filibuster to prevent this from happening, though Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who's retiring next year, suggested yesterday that the GOP's wall is starting to show some cracks. Whether Republicans would cave in time to prevent a disaster is unclear.
Congress can attach a debt-ceiling extension to some other bill. When Democrats tried this last week, Republicans refused to consider it.
Congress can incorporate a debt-ceiling extension to the Build Back Better agenda. Though several GOP senators pushed this approach last month, Democratic leaders have already ruled out this possibility, and there almost certainly isn't enough time to jump through the procedural hoops to make it happen.
Congress can extend the debt ceiling through a separate reconciliation measure. The Senate Parliamentarian's office yesterday said the GOP demand is procedurally possible. (For you legislative wonks out there, the parliamentarian's ruling was based on Section 304 of the Congressional Budget Act, which we discussed in detail in March.) But Democrats still have no intention of doing this, largely because it would take two weeks and the default deadline is in 13 days.
Congress could try the "platinum coin" route. I hesitate to even mention this because it's quite silly, and both the White House and the Treasury Department have said it's a gimmick they will not consider for a variety of reasons.
Democrats could abandon their domestic agenda. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine suggested yesterday that GOP senators might consider doing what has to be done if Democrats scrapped President Joe Biden's Build Back Better agenda. The fact that Collins would even raise this as a possibility says a great deal about the Republican's "moderation."
The White House could pretend the debt ceiling is an illegal concept that deserves to be ignored. Officials in the White House reportedly considered this possibility, but dismissed it.
Democrats could extend the debt ceiling on their own by creating a new exception to the filibuster rule. I've long seen this as the easiest and most obvious solution, and some members of the Senate Democratic caucus are starting to come to the same conclusion.
Indeed, if the Democratic majority gets to a point where they're saying, "Republicans crashed the economy on purpose, but don't worry, the filibuster rule remains intact," that's going to be an awfully tough sell to voters and the rest of the world.
For his part, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia told reporters yesterday, "The filibuster doesn't have anything to do with the debt ceiling," despite the fact that the filibuster is the one thing Republicans are using to prevent an extension of the debt ceiling.
The West Virginian added, "We have other tools that we can use, and we have to use and we should use.... We will not let this country default."
I have no idea what "other tools" he's referring to, but the nation faces an economic calamity in 13 days unless Democrats figure out a way to overcome the Republican-imposed crisis. Watch this space.