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McConnell threatens to oppose debt ceiling hike, raising Democratic ire

"Mitch McConnell is playing Russian roulette with this economy," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks at the Capitol on July 13, 2021.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks at the Capitol on July 13, 2021.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans won't support a debt limit hike, drawing fierce backlash from Democrats who accused him of plotting to sabotage the economy.

The Kentucky Republican suggested that Democrats should act alone to lift the debt ceiling, a move that experts say is necessary later this year to avert a default that could tank the U.S. and global economy.

"I can’t imagine there will be a single Republican voting to raise the debt ceiling after what we’ve been experiencing," McConnell told Punchbowl News in an interview published Wednesday morning. "I can’t imagine a single Republican in this environment that we’re in now — this free-for-all for taxes and spending — to vote to raise the debt limit," he added.

McConnell said Democrats should "put it in the reconciliation bill," referring to the $3.5 trillion measure Democrats are eying to advance President Joe Biden's economic agenda.

The GOP leader's gambit is to put the onus on Democrats to lift the debt ceiling, which has been the subject of political attacks in the past. The credibility of the threat hinges on Republicans believing the budget reconciliation bill will pass and being willing to threaten a catastrophic default if Democrats don't include it in their package.

"Mitch McConnell is playing Russian roulette with this economy," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the chairman of the Budget Committee, responded that McConnell "wants the United States to default on its debt, is that what Senator McConnell is saying? I don't think that that's a particularly good idea."

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the chairman of the Finance Committee, said Congress will raise the debt limit "quickly" and won't tolerate hostage-taking, without specifying whether a measure to address the issue would be a standalone bill.

"Mitch McConnell is clearly part of an effort to hold our economy hostage. We aren't going to let anybody do that," Wyden told reporters on Wednesday morning, calling the Republican leader's move a "McConnell double standard" and noting that Democrats raised the debt limit under GOP presidents without demands.

Lifting the debt ceiling would not authorize new spending. It would enable the U.S. to borrow money to fulfill obligations that Congress has mandated, such as Social Security checks and military spending.

Such a move is subject to the filibuster and would require 60 votes, meaning the support of at least 10 GOP senators.

Asked Wednesday if Republicans would filibuster a standalone debt limit increase, Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., responded: "I don't think there's any appetite among our members to vote for a big increase in the debt limit when they're in the process of adding so much to the debt."

He added: "You would think, based on what they're talking about doing, that Bernie Sanders had won the election."

McConnell's position resembles Republican positioning under President Barack Obama, when conservative demands to cut spending as part of a debt limit increase brought the U.S. to the brink of default in 2011. After that, the Obama White House refused to negotiate in subsequent debt ceiling extensions and Republicans, including McConnell, backed down.

Under President Donald Trump, Congress raised the debt ceiling multiple times with little drama.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said the debt limit should be raised again without any strings attached.

"The United States pays its debts. There is no doubt about that," she said. "We do not want to create doubt about that, anywhere in the world. This is Trump tax cut debt and COVID debt."

"There is no compromise here," Warren said. "We don't compromise with America paying its bills. The Republicans are trying to extract something and say that their leverage is they will have the United States default on legal obligations, which is fundamentally wrong. This should not be a drawn-out conversation."