Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is set to play a pivotal role in a debt ceiling fight expected to consume Washington in the coming weeks and months.
The Republican leader is a central figure in a fight between conservative House Republicans determined to win huge cuts to domestic spending and a White House that, at this stage in the game, is refusing to negotiate spending cuts for a debt ceiling hike.
Any debt ceiling increase must pass both the Senate and House, meaning McConnell likely will need to deliver GOP votes behind some kind of compromise if the government is to avoid defaulting on its payments — something that would rupture stock markets, threaten the U.S. credit rating and shake the underlying economy.
“McConnell might as well be on a tightrope hovering over Niagara Falls at this point,” one former Senate GOP leadership aide said of the challenges ahead for McConnell, who has been at the center of a number of past negotiations and deals that allowed the debt ceiling to be raised by a Democratic president and Republican House.
McConnell will face calls to deliver real spending cuts from fiscal conservatives who see a chance to enact change, while convincing the public that Republicans are not putting the economy at risk to satisfy the loudest and most vociferous voices in the House GOP.
And he’ll need to do it after a disappointing midterm election for his party that left him short again of a Senate majority.
“This is going to be a defining moment for the party, not only for how we can stand tall for fiscal sanity on the spending side, but also how we can convince independents that we’re a responsible party of government, which includes not endangering the full faith and credit of the U.S.,” the GOP leadership aide said.
McConnell gave the first signals of how he will handle the crisis on Thursday, insisting the U.S. would not default on its debt and that he “would not be concerned about a financial crisis” coming to fruition.
He said he expects a negotiation of some kind with the Biden administration, but declined to delve any deeper. The main negotiation is expected to take place between President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), with the two saying on Friday that they look forward to sitting down and discussing the situation soon. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) also noted that she expects the lion’s share of talks to take place between the White House and House Republicans.
Nevertheless, McConnell will face pressure from within his own Senate caucus to win something for Republicans in the standoff.
“It’s going to be a really tall task,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told The Hill, who voted against raising the debt ceiling twice in late 2021.
“Mitch always insists we have to raise the debt ceiling, and I think most Republicans would agree with him on that,” he said.
“But he seems to almost give away any leverage by insisting that we cannot and will not let the country default. It’s a great and nice message to Wall Street, but it’s kind of a lousy message to your competitor or your opponent,” Cramer continued.
At the same time, Cramer offered a note to McConnell’s sagacity, noting with a laugh that, “Every time I think Mitch is wrong, he turns out to be right.”
The House GOP has already agreed to write their fiscal 2024 appropriations bills at fiscal 2022 levels, a move that would cut $130 billion in spending.
Democrats have not agreed to enacting those cuts, nor have some Senate Republicans. Cramer dismissed them as not “realistic” and “a pipe dream.”
McConnell has a long history of brokering deals with Biden, which Democrats are noting privately.
“Just look at the last couple years. Mitch is the grown-up in the room on the other side,” one House Democrat told The Hill.
Biden and McConnell famously helped negotiate a 2012 agreement to avoid the “fiscal cliff” that, absent a deal, would have increased taxes and enacted deep spending cuts.
In October 2021, McConnell swung a two-month extension of the debt ceiling to ward off the possibility that Democrats might do so by nullifying the filibuster. Before doing so, McConnell consulted with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), who were under pressure to nix the 60-vote threshold to move a debt limit bill. McConnell also noted at the time that Republicans would not allow a routine debt limit increase to take place as long as Democrats pursued the Build Back Better agenda, which was being pursued under a legislative process that prevented Republicans in the Senate from blocking it.
He also cobbled together a group of 14 other Republicans, including members of leadership and moderates, to break a filibuster on a package two months later that allowed Democrats to raise the ceiling on their own by $2.5 trillion.
However, according to multiple Senate GOP sources, there was frustration surrounding the December 2021 vote to end debate among some of those members. McConnell had said in a letter shortly after the two-month increase was passed that the party would not help Democrats do so again, leading to criticism from GOP corners.
McConnell is also now dealing with bitterness from Republicans in the House and Senate over last month’s passage of the omnibus spending bill. Several House Republicans during the fight to make McCarthy Speaker referenced that bill in demanding changes.
“The reason I think this is going to be harder is — at some point political capital gets spent faster than it can get renewed, and the omnibus cost a lot,” Cramer said. “It’s been brutal.”
How each side gets to the table in the coming months remains unclear.
Manchin last week was the only Senate Democrat to indicate a willingness to negotiate on the debt ceiling, noting that he spoke with McCarthy about tying an increase with the TRUST Act — a bill he co-authored with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) to create “rescue committees” that look into Medicare, Social Security and other government trust funds that are endangered.
“You have to do something,” the former Senate GOP leadership aide continued. “And if Republicans are saying cut spending, and Democrats keep saying ‘do nothing,’ then it really feels like we’re really far apart.”
“Nothing’s going to happen until we’re staring down the storm,” the aide added.