Democrats Are Betting on McConnell. It's a Terrible Bet | Opinion

A simple observer of political history over the last few years would come to an obvious conclusion: betting on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to do the right thing—particularly when doing the right thing is not politically advantageous to him—is always a losing bet. Always.

And yet, that is exactly what the Democrats' strategy to pass the upcoming debt ceiling vote seems to be. And it is not a small bet, either. The fate of our economy, the world's economic stability and nearly all of President Joe Biden's agenda hang in the balance.

While much of the media attention over the summer focused on Democrats' attempts to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill and President Biden's Build Back Better Agenda via reconciliation, the upcoming debt ceiling vote has lingered in the background as a ticking time bomb. Now, with the Treasury Department saying that the United States will hit the debt limit in about a month, that bomb is about to detonate. And if it does, it will blow up not only the infrastructure bill and the reconciliation bill but also our fragile economic recovery—and with it, Democrats' chances for keeping their majorities in the House and Senate.

Despite voting repeatedly to lift the debt ceiling when Donald Trump was driving the nation to historic debt, McConnell repeatedly stated that Senate Republicans will not provide the necessary votes to lift the debt ceiling now that Democrats control the White House and Congress. And it appears that even the so-called moderates in McConnell's caucus, like Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), are prepared to join him in pushing the economy over a cliff.

The current Democratic strategy to rebut McConnell's universal opposition seems to be two-pronged: hope and pray. First, they hope to force Republicans into voting to lift the debt ceiling by attaching it to must-pass legislation—such as a bill to avert a government shutdown by the end of September. Second, as Axios reported last week, they pray that the bank lobby and Republicans' rich donor class, who would be hit hard by a default, will convince McConnell and Republicans to see the light and do the right thing.

One would have to look no further than how Mitch McConnell has handled the Supreme Court nomination battles and the impeachment trials over the last few years to see the folly of this strategy. McConnell and other Republicans in Congress play by one set of rules when they are in power and another when Democrats are in power. When political rules and norms fit their political agenda, they hold them up as unbreakable virtues, and when they don't, they simply change the rules to their benefit.

Republicans, led by McConnell, have determined that if the nation were to default because of their actions, voters will ultimately blame the party in power—the Democrats—anyway. As with nearly all things with McConnell, he is making a cynical political power grab, consequences be damned.

The most likely outcome of McConnell's recklessly pushing the nation to the edge of a fiscal abyss is that Democrats will have to choose between two strategies they loathe to pass the debt ceiling. They will either have to attach it to the reconciliation package and pass it with 50 Democratic votes, or they will have to change the filibuster rules and put an end to McConnell's ability to take the full faith and credit of the nation hostage for his political benefit.

Mitch McConnell addresses reporters
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell addresses reporters following a weekly Democratic policy meeting at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 21, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Since Democrats did not include raising the debt ceiling in their budget resolution passed last month, trying to do so now would mean going through a time-consuming and painful process of passing a new budget with new reconciliation rules. But the time and political pain are not the real problem for Democrats with this plan.

The problem is that the last month has shown the deep division within the party about the budget and priorities, and it seems impossible that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will be able to get conservative Democrats like Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to vote for a new budget allowing for a reconciliation package at the current size of $3.5 trillion—meaning resorting to reconciliation to pass a bill that includes lifting the debt ceiling would also mean sacrificing large portions of President Biden's domestic agenda.

That leaves changing the filibuster rules to create a carve-out to make raising the debt ceiling require a simple majority vote instead of 60 votes. If Democrats are looking for inspiration for this sort of filibuster carve-out, they need to look no further than McConnell himself. This is exactly what McConnell and the Republicans did for Supreme Court nominees when it suited their political purposes. If McConnell and Republicans can do it to pack the court, certainly Democrats can and should do it to avert a fiscal crisis on a scale our nation has never seen before.

While Democrats will be reluctant to take either path, ultimately Republicans are leaving them no choice. McConnell plays a zero-sum game of maniacal politics, and Republicans in Congress feel no sense of responsibility to govern. And hoping, praying or betting that will change in the next few weeks is a doomed strategy.

Or I could be wrong. And for the first time in history, Mitch McConnell could decide to do the right thing. But would you be willing to bet our economy and the entirety of the president's agenda on that? Seems like a terrible bet to me.

Doug Gordon is a Democratic strategist and co-CEO of UpShift Strategies who has worked on numerous federal, state and local campaigns and on Capitol Hill. He is on Twitter at @dgordon52.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.