Schumer-McConnell dial down the debt ceiling drama

Politics

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined by Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., speaks to reporters after a Republican policy meeting, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(The Hill) — Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) are dialing down the drama as they try to find an escape hatch from another high-stakes fight over the debt ceiling. 

Congress has until roughly Dec. 15 to raise the nation’s borrowing limit, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who has warned that the mid-December date is when the government will no longer be able to fully pay its bills. 

On the surface, the deadline sets the stage for round two of a bruising fight between the Senate leaders, who spent weeks in open warfare in the lead up to the October debt ceiling vote, each walking far out onto limbs as they traded one-upmanships. 

But instead, McConnell and Schumer, who their colleagues say rarely talk, are publicly pulling their punches for now, in what senators view as more a marriage of necessity — with the global economy hanging in the balance — than a love match between the two adversaries. 

“I don’t know that it’s necessarily a thaw, I just think there’s a realization that this has to get done,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said. 

Asked if he was picking up bipartisan vibes between the two, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) quipped back: “No.” 

“I feel just pragmatic people finally getting together,” Cramer added. 

McConnell and Schumer have served in the Senate together for more than 20 years but their relationship is notoriously icy, though not as openly hostile as the relationship between the GOP leader and former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.). 

The two have deal-making, pragmatic streaks in their political genes, a commonality that sparked hope before Schumer took over the Senate Democrats’ top spot in 2017 that they could figure out a way to function well together. 

And there have been moments of levity, including joking about bourbon together when Schumer spoke at the University of Louisville in 2018 after the two cut a budget deal, and trading quips earlier this year when Schumer swooped in to beat McConnell to a weekly press conference.

But they’re also personality opposites, with Schumer continuously feeling out his caucus in-person or via his infamous flip phone while McConnell’s thinking is at times hard to decipher even to his closest allies in the GOP. And there have been heated fights between them, including three Supreme Court confirmation battles that battered the Senate. 

Schumer’s fiery floor speech after 11 Republicans helped advance the short-term debt hike in October, while ultimately voting against the bill, initially appeared to have nixed any chance of an agreement on the upcoming debt fight. 

McConnell, in a letter sent to Biden the day after the speech, argued that Schumer “poisoned the well” with his remarks, which the GOP leader compared to a “tantrum.”

“I write to inform you that I will not provide such assistance again if your all-Democrat government drifts into another avoidable crisis,” McConnell wrote at the time. 

But temperatures appeared to have cooled between the two since then, with both being careful to not draw hard lines during recent back-to-back press conferences. 

“We cannot let the full faith and credit of the United States lapse and we are focusing on getting this done in a bipartisan way,” Schumer told reporters. 

Asked about Democrats wanting the debt ceiling to be bipartisan, McConnell sidestepped, instead predicting that “we’ll figure out how to avoid default. We always do.” 

The two had a rare in-person meeting — a day after two sources told The Hill that they were talking — with McConnell saying afterward that they had a “good conversation.” 

“We agreed to kind of keep talking, working together to try to get somewhere,” McConnell added.

Trying to come up with a path forward on the debt ceiling has payoffs for both: Schumer is facing a packed year-end schedule that would be complicated by a protracted debt fight, with funding the government, a massive defense policy bill and President Biden’s climate and social spending plan also on the to-do list. 

McConnell, meanwhile, faced fierce backlash from conservatives in his own caucus for his strategy during the debt ceiling fight earlier this year. And Republicans are aware of the pressure that Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) are under to change the filibuster. 

Former President Trump’s constant barrage against McConnell also complicates the calculation in the Senate GOP caucus, where even Republicans who privately disagree with the former president are loath to cross him publicly. And Trump’s constant drum beat against McConnell this week on the debt ceiling was quickly picked up by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s closest Senate allies, tweeting Friday, “I agree with President Trump that it’s imperative that Senate Republicans do not aid and abet the raising of the debt ceiling.” 

While GOP senators have floated that there are options on the table for how the debt ceiling gets raised, they don’t believe 10 members of their caucus will vote a second time to help advance a debt ceiling bill. 

Instead, the main offer from Republicans is to help speed up Democrats raising the debt ceiling on their own through reconciliation, a budget process that lets them avoid the 60-vote legislative filibuster. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) has explored a proposal, backed by others in the caucus, to expedite the committee and floor process if Democrats agree to raise the debt ceiling through the budget process. Typically reconciliation requires hours of debate and an unwieldy vote-a-rama, where any senator who wants to get a vote can force one. 

“I’d be for always compressing it, but I would want to make sure part of the deal isn’t that you would have Republicans behind it … but in terms of getting it to a quicker resolution I think most Republicans would probably be okay with that,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). 

But some Democrats are adamantly against using the budget process, believing that Republicans will blink like they did in October. 

Others, including Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), believe they should change the filibuster rule to exempt the debt ceiling. While the October fight did build pressure on Democrats to make a narrow change to the filibuster, Manchin said as recently as this week that he doesn’t support the move. 

But some Democrats, including Manchin, support using the budget process. Others aren’t closing the door completely as they wait to see what offer emerges from the Schumer-McConnell talks. 

“Here’s the thing—I haven’t seen the details. I don’t know what they mean by that,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “Until then, my view remains …either get on board and do the right thing with us or get out of the way.”

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