The battle continues in Washington, D.C., over the adoption of the next unbalanced federal budget, a battle which encompasses several components and discussions concerning just about everything except fiscal responsibility. The most pressing issue at the moment is a teensy-weensy increase to the $28.4 trillion debt limit.
At issue is how to go about it. The Democrats, of course, have the votes necessary to pass whatever they want via reconciliation; they don’t need the Republicans help to extend the debt limit. On this score, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has instead been pounding a drum that they simply do not have sufficient time to raise the debt ceiling through reconciliation, noting the October 18 date that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin set as the day on which the U.S. will enter into default absent a debt limit increase.
In fact, what Schumer is worried about is not that there is not enough time to do it before Oct. 18, but what could come out of the reconciliation process itself. The concern is the “vote-a-rama” which accompanies a must-pass reconciliation bill, as the Republicans would be allowed to offer as many non-binding amendment votes to the bill as they wish. President Biden admitted this earlier in the week when asked why the Democrats were so resistant to using reconciliation to raise the debt roof. The process he said, “would require literally up to hundreds of votes… it’s an unlimited number of votes having nothing directly to do with the debt limit… and it’s fraught with all kinds of potential danger.”
I wonder, sometimes, how long the Democrats are going to tolerate the president giving away their house secrets. But it is true, that allowing those votes to take place is required in the reconciliation process — but that takes hours, perhaps a day or two, not weeks.
No, the concern is not the time it could take but the simple fact that those would be recorded votes that the Democratic leadership in no way, shape, or form wants to have saddled on its members leading into an election year, votes they would have to explain to their constituents during a mid-term campaign in which their party leader is increasingly unpopular. They would far rather the Republicans spare them that pain.
So Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called Schumer’s bluff, offering the Majority three options. He said that the Republican minority would either A) “assist in expediting the 304 reconciliation process for stand-alone debt limit legislation”; or B) “Allow Democrats to use normal procedures to pass an emergency debt limit extension at a fixed dollar amount to cover current spending levels into December”; or, as an alternative, he proffered that C) “if Democrats abandon their efforts to ram through another historically reckless taxing and spending spree that will hurt families and help China, a more traditional bipartisan governing conversation could be possible.”
Clearly C) is the best option, which means it's off the table. As for the first two options, McConnell is offering to either expedite the process, i.e. not use all of the delaying arrows in the minority’s quiver, or support a temporary funding of the government at the current level. This is a rather clever bit of maneuvering on McConnell’s part, inasmuch at it takes from Schumer the excuse that they haven’t the time to raise the debt ceiling via reconciliation. It also serves to absolve the Republicans for any (manufactured) blame for the consequences of default.
As I am writing this, is appears that the Senate majority has agreed to option A). So what now will likely happen is that the debt ceiling will be lifted via reconciliation, avoiding default, but also placing the responsibility on the Democrats — the other part of this that was deeply unpalatable for Schumer, who rather desperately wanted the Republicans to share the blame for the engorgement of the national debt. But it also reveals how everything in this this brou-ha-ha over the debt ceiling was about politics, not principle.
Were this about principle, Schumer would accept McConnell’s third alternative and advise to abandon his $3.5 trillion profligate monstrosity. If it was about principle, the conversation would focus on the human costs of crushing national debt and accompanying inflation, and look to replace the economics of illusion with a more enlightened approach to fiscal policy that would seek to balance the budget and muster the discipline and courage to adopt measures to actually begin to reduce the debt, no matter where it’s ceiling might be.