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After McConnell's blink, Democrats hold a weaker hand

Analysis: Democratic sources say there is no plan for avoiding a messier debt limit fight in December — and the Senate minority leader insists he won't help again.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks on Capitol Hill on June 8, 2021.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks on Capitol Hill on June 8.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The "blink" heard 'round the world temporarily saved the U.S. from defaulting on its debts, and it supplied ammunition for Democrats and Republicans to mock Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Former President Donald Trump accused McConnell of "folding," and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who is seldom in sync with Trump, exclaimed that "McConnell caved."

But a blink is over in the quick bat of an eyelid. The victory for Democrats and the full faith and credit of the U.S. are temporary and tenuous. And the electoral risk of extending the debt limit fight into December worries moderates in the party.

"Every time the word 'debt' is said, it's another nail in our coffin," said an aide to a centrist House Democrat. "I don't understand the legislative strategy."

Indeed, half a dozen Democratic aides and strategists spanning the ideological spectrum, most of them speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss party strategy candidly, said party leaders don't appear to have a plan to avert a second debt limit crisis when federal borrowing authority is due to run out. That figures to happen in a holiday season dash to keep the government open and enact President Joe Biden's safety net and infrastructure bills.

"Now that they've kicked the can down the road, I'm a little unclear how Democrats intend to proceed from here on out," said Jim Manley, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide.

Democratic leaders say McConnell's blink at the brink — he helped provide the procedural votes to allow Democrats to raise the debt ceiling by $480 billion — portends a second fold in December. In offering a deal last week, he backed down from his previous insistence that Democrats use a partisan budget tool called "reconciliation" to lift the cap without Republican support.

"Republicans played a dangerous and risky partisan game, and I am glad that their brinksmanship did not work," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "For the good of America's families, for the good of our economy, Republicans must recognize in the future that they should approach fixing the debt limit in a bipartisan way."

But McConnell told Biden in a letter Friday that he won't be "a party to any future effort to mitigate the consequences" of Democrats' choosing not to use the filibuster-proof reconciliation tool, and he accused Schumer of "poisoning the well" more with a floor speech that even some Democrats thought was over the top.

"I will not provide such assistance again if your all-Democrat government drifts into another avoidable crisis," McConnell wrote.

And the next round of the debt-limit fight will involve a Democratic side that surrendered on two fronts.

First, Democrats agreed to raise the debt ceiling by a specific dollar figure — $480 billion — instead of extend borrowing authority to a certain date. Most Democrats preferred the calendar version, because they fear the number could be used against them on the campaign trail in next year's midterm elections.

Second, they can no longer rely on the argument that reconciliation risks an accidental default because it could take up to two weeks to fully execute.

More important on the electoral front — where the Senate would switch hands with a net loss of one Democrat and the House would flip with a net gain of four Republicans — Democrats guaranteed that the debt limit will remain a live issue in the national debate for at least the next couple of months.

With Biden's approval rating sinking — the RealClearPolitics average pegs it at 43.4 percent, and Quinnipiac University measured it as low as 38 percent last week — Republican leaders chose not to risk getting blamed for a default now. They calculate that Democrats are more likely to take the hit if it happens at the same time they are spending money later in the year.

"Your lieutenants on Capitol Hill now have the time they claimed they lacked to address the debt ceiling through standalone reconciliation, and all the tools to do it," McConnell wrote to Biden. "They cannot invent another crisis and ask for my help."

The politics of the debt limit fight revolve around who is to blame — both for the debt itself and for the need to raise the limit. Republicans would like for Democrats to bear the entire burden of increasing the cap, and Democrats would like to continue to be able to point both to Trump's role in creating the need and Republicans' complicity in fulfilling it.

While Republicans appear to have a stronger hand in the next round, Democrats didn't emerge empty-handed.

In addition to preventing a default, they bought themselves a legislative breather from two weeks of talk about the debt. That will allow them to turn back to their internal fight over the size and scope of Biden's Build Back Better agenda.

"It was a tradeoff: What we got in return is we didn't [mess] around for two weeks," said a senior Senate Democratic aide who wasn't authorized to speak on the record. "In terms of the morale and the focus of members, it would have just strung out the Build Back Better process even longer than it has been strung out."

At least for the time being, they also avoided a string of politically difficult votes on amendments to a debt limit bill. But if they are forced to rewrite their budget to raise the debt limit again, Democrats would most likely have to hold those votes anyway. And when they return to the debt limit, Democratic leaders will be juggling other must-do legislative priorities.

In other words, there will be a legislative traffic jam on the Senate floor as Christmas approaches.

While Democrats say there is no grand strategy for raising the debt ceiling in a couple of months, some of them are hopeful that they can find a way to neutralize the issue once and for all. But both of the leading tactics — having the Treasury Department mint a trillion-dollar coin and changing the Senate's filibuster rules in a partisan vote — haven't gained the traction to move forward.

"I'm opposed to it, and I don't believe that we should consider it seriously," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said of the coin option last week on CNBC. "It's really a gimmick."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a leading proponent of the filibuster, said Thursday that he hasn't changed his mind.

"The filibuster is the only thread that we have to keep democracy alive and well in America," he said. "If we didn't have the filibuster, to where it can keep us coming back to civility from time to time, then you will see total chaos."

If Democratic leaders can't come up with a plan, they may see that chaos in December anyway.