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The Republicans' debt-ceiling ransom note finally comes into focus

The conventional wisdom is that Republicans, unlike their earlier debt-ceiling crises, haven't yet presented Democrats with a ransom note. That's not true.
Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, and Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., are seen in the senate subway during a vote in the Capitol on June 10, 2021.
Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, and Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., are seen in the senate subway during a vote in the Capitol on June 10, 2021.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

When the Republican Party launched the nation's first-ever debt-ceiling crisis 10 years ago, there was no real question about the GOP's demands. Party leaders effectively told the Obama White House, "Give us trillions of dollars in spending cuts or we'll crash the economy on purpose."

Exactly eight years ago today, Republicans tried again, telling Democrats they would meet their obligations, but only if Democrats delayed implementation of the ACA, approved the Keystone XL pipeline, imposed Medicare means testing, made the Dodd-Frank financial-regulatory-reform law more Wall Street friendly, increased oil drilling, and ended the EPA's efforts to combat the climate crisis. No, seriously, that's what was included on the party's ransom note.

Ezra Klein wrote at the time that the wish list "isn't a serious governing document. It's not even a plausible opening bid. It's a cry for help."

This year, the circumstances seem similar — Republicans have created another debt-ceiling crisis, creating a potentially catastrophic risk to the global economy — except for the apparent lack of a ransom note. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell famously described the debt ceiling as "a hostage that's worth ransoming," but on the surface, it's not at all clear what the GOP wants in exchange for the hostage.

We see Republicans pointing a gun at our economy, but we don't see the ransom note with demands that would lead the party to put the gun away and let the economy go unscathed.

At least, that's the way it seems on the surface.

I wrote an item the other day about Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who'd claimed a day earlier that extending the debt limit would make it easier for Democrats "to add trillions more in debt." That was a rather obvious lie, and I explained why.

To my surprise, I heard from Dave Vasquez, the Texas senator's press secretary, who took issue with a different part of my post. Vasquez argued via an email that Cruz's point was that Democrats "are 100% capable of raising the debt ceiling through the reconciliation process without a single Republican vote — a process that can't be filibustered." He added that this is "an indisputable fact," before making this statement:

"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."

This is surprisingly constructive, largely because it helps explain the nature of the elusive ransom note.

Democratic leaders have come up with a straightforward resolution to the crisis: The majority party has drafted a bill, which the House has already passed, that would prevent a government shutdown, extend the debt ceiling, and fund both disaster relief and Afghan resettlement. Republican leaders have said they support each of these four goals.

They've also said they'll block the bill with a filibuster anyway. It's why I characterized the GOP's position as foolish: Republicans are telling Democrats to extend the debt ceiling while simultaneously preventing Democrats from voting on a bill that would extend the debt ceiling.

But Cruz's office has identified an important nuance to the GOP's posture: 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.

McConnell made a rather explicit presentation on the Senate floor this morning, outlining, as he put it, "how the unified Democratic government will raise the debt limit." In prepared remarks, the minority leader described a detailed scenario in which Democrats would "amend" their existing budget resolution.

Or put another way, Senate Republicans have prepared instructions on how to release the hostage: Democrats must jump through a series of procedural hoops, add a debt-ceiling increase to their Build Back Better legislation, and then pass the revised package through the budget reconciliation process, which the GOP cannot block with a filibuster.

Can Congress simply pass a clean debt-ceiling extension? Republicans say no. Can Congress add a debt-ceiling extension to the continuing resolution that would prevent a government shutdown? Republicans say no. What the GOP will tolerate — what the GOP will only tolerate — is having Democrats raise the debt ceiling by adding it to the not-yet-written multi-trillion-dollar reconciliation bill.

That's the ransom note. That's what Republicans are demanding in exchange for letting the hostage go.

And why, pray tell, are GOP leaders making this demand? In part because they hope it'll make the Democratic legislation harder to pass, and in part because they believe it'll make the popular bill easier to attack.

It's a political game that's as crass as it is dangerous, but it's the one congressional Republicans insist on playing anyway.