McConnell offers to limit the pain as Dems face another debt filibuster

Even as the GOP prepares to thwart another debt ceiling suspension, Mitch McConnell offered Democrats an escape hatch — entirely on his terms — that could spare Washington a calamitous default.

Democrats quickly dismissed the GOP leader’s offer, demanding that Republicans drop their blockade.

After discussing a way to expedite the process for addressing the debt ceiling through reconciliation after the failed vote, Senate Minority Leader McConnell released a statement offering Democrats several ways to avoid a default in the coming days. Each one, however, involves drawbacks for Democrats and is intended to make them raise the debt ceiling to a fixed number, rather than a suspending a limit until a certain point in the future.

“It’s more games, just let us do this. Give us cloture, let us pass it with all Democratic votes,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “I will travel to every Republican state and certify that people that voted for cloture didn’t raise the debt ceiling. That’s my counteroffer.”

“We’re not doing reconciliation,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said simply.

In the statement, McConnell said his party would allow Democrats to lift the debt ceiling through November in order to avoid an imminent default, albeit at a fixed number that could spark attack ads. He also said his party would “assist in expediting” the reconciliation process for raising the debt ceiling, which Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has resisted because he says it takes too long and is too risky.

Schumer, on the other hand, wants Republicans to help Democrats break a filibuster on suspending the debt ceiling through next year’s midterms, or at least drop their filibuster. McConnell and GOP senators have refused to do that, leading to the current stalemate — and Wednesday’s expected failed vote.

In his statement, McConnell said his party’s options “will moot Democrats’ excuses about the time crunch they created and give the unified Democratic government more than enough time to pass standalone debt limit legislation through reconciliation.”

McConnell’s statement is actually meant as a conversation-starter, according to Republican senators, who say the GOP leader wants to begin negotiations with Schumer. The two leaders have blasted each other on the Senate floor repeatedly for their positions.

“He’s trying to spark a conversation with Chuck. And try to offer him a somewhat graceful exit ramp,” said one attendee at Wednesday’s meeting. Republicans want to keep “the onus on Democrats to raise the debt ceiling all on their own. But of course there are other players than the 50 of us, because Mitch needs to have room to negotiate with a key Democrat or two and negotiate with the Democratic leader.”

Those key Democrats are Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the holdouts on changing the filibuster in the 50-50 Senate.

Democrats were scheduled to have a “special caucus” meeting at the same time as the GOP’s huddle on the debt ceiling, though it was canceled. All eyes will be on Schumer after Wednesday’s vote, as Washington awaits a response from the Democratic leader.

Senate Republicans are set to reject Schumer’s third effort in two weeks to lift the debt ceiling, or the cap on what the government borrows to pay the bills. Democrats need 10 Republican votes Wednesday afternoon to proceed with debt limit-lifting legislation, which they could then approve with a simple majority. But GOP senators are resolute in not helping the majority tackle the borrowing limit as Democrats pursue multitrillion-dollar spending plans.

Democratic leaders will use the failed vote to continue hammering Republicans as irresponsible for gambling with an issue that often necessitates bipartisan cooperation and could have enormous consequences for the global economy. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has said the Treasury Department could run out money in as little as two weeks. Before the vote, Senate Democrats had been planning to huddle in a special caucus meeting to discuss the approaching debt cliff.

“Democrats have been clear from the start, we’ll do the responsible thing,” Schumer said on the floor Wednesday morning. “Republican obstruction on the debt ceiling has been reckless, irresponsible, but nonetheless today Republicans will have an opportunity to get what they’ve been asking for … simply get out of the way and we can agree to skip the filibuster vote and so we can proceed to final passage of this bill.”

Democrats are mulling a number of off-ramps, including making an exception to the filibuster rules for debt ceiling legislation, known as a carve-out. That would take away Republicans’ ability to block the effort.

But detonating the filibuster to raise the debt ceiling only works if all Democrats are on board. President Joe Biden signaled on Tuesday that a filibuster workaround is up for discussion, while Manchin rejected the idea Wednesday morning. Sinema, another key Senate centrist, hasn’t indicated whether she’ll support that approach, which both parties could weaponize to advance their policy priorities.

“My view is that if Republicans don’t get out of the way on their own, we should have a carve-out on this issue,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a Democrat on the Budget Committee, after Senate Democrats met with White House officials on Wednesday morning. “We’re on the precipice now of a cliff and any day now you could have a downgrade in our national credit rating. So time is of the essence.”

Meanwhile, Democrats insist that they won’t use the budget reconciliation process to raise the debt limit on their own, as Republicans have demanded. Democratic leaders say that reconciliation, or the same special budget maneuver that Democrats are deploying to pass Biden’s massive social spending plans, could prove time-consuming and arduous. McConnell’s short-term extension offer is an effort to alleviate those concerns.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) noted that even the credit rating agency Moody’s expects Democrats to raise the debt ceiling through reconciliation in time to avoid a breach of the borrowing limit.

“I’m telling people there will not be a default and that Democrats have proven that they can tax as they want, spend as they want and raise the debt ceiling as they want,” Romney said. “Moody‘s came out yesterday and said don’t worry about it, and I think that’s at least as assuring as my comments.”

But Democrats continue to distance themselves from reconciliation as an option, which Republicans could ultimately use as a political cudgel during the midterms next year if the majority party is forced to settle on a new debt limit figure through the process.

After meeting with White House officials on Wednesday morning, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) stressed that, “Senate Democrats stand united on the debt.”

“The Republicans have to allow us this vote tonight and we will own this because they’re afraid to,” she said. “We are governing, and we’re not going to let a bunch of people’s interest rates go up and cause havoc across this country simply because they’re trying to play politics. This is a time to govern.”

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