Mitch McConnell Caved? The Wily Kentucky Senator Has Another Move

Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, friends and former staffers have said, is used to being the occasional punching bag for many members of his own party—whether fellow Senators, popular conservative radio hosts or rank-and-file Republican voters. The deal he struck this week with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat, brought out most of the usual critics. With a deadline of October 18th approaching—the point at which, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the U.S. would default on its debt if the debt ceiling were not raised by $480 billion—McConnell and Schumer agreed to raise the debt limit through December.

"Folding Mitch McConnell!" fulminated former President Donald Trump, urging other GOP senators "not to vote for this terrible deal." "Complete capitulation," South Carolina Lindsey Graham said. Democrats gleefully agreed. "McConnell caved," said Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

The critics might want to hold their fire until they see what happens in December. According to McConnell's allies, the minority leader had very good reasons for striking the deal. They say it connects all the important political dots now laid out before him as GOP leader, in ways that will benefit Republicans going into a midterm election year. They include:

1) Timing

Democrats had opposed using the Senate's ''reconciliation process" (which allows the passage of fiscal-related legislation with only 51 votes, thus avoiding a possible filibuster) to raise the debt ceiling because they claimed not to have enough time. It was too complicated a process to do before October 18, they said. (And in fact it would have had to be one of the fastest reconciliation processes ever.) Ok, McConnell responded, we'll give you more time. "The pathway our Democratic colleagues have accepted will spare the American people any near-term crisis while definitively resolving the majority's excuse that they lacked time to address the debt limit through reconciliation."

Why would McConnell accede to this? He believes the Democrats are playing a losing hand, politically, on the debt ceiling and, more broadly, on their hugely ambitious spending plans. He wants to force them to vote using reconciliation, and with a December deadline, that's what they'll have to do. The vote would also come just a month after a Virginia gubernatorial race, which polls show is a dead heat. A Republican victory in a state Joe Biden won by ten points last year would be a major shock to the Democrats, making the debt ceiling vote that much more painful. So to McConnell, this wasn't a get-out-of-jail-free card for Democrats on the debt ceiling: this was a very temporary reprieve.

2) A weak president and a warring party

The debt ceiling controversy comes as Joe Biden's popularity is plunging. Just nine months into his presidency, a new Quinnipiac poll this week has his approval rating all the way down to 38 per cent, and showed the president to be underwater on every major issue. The Democratic party is riven by internal divisions. Progressives and moderates are at war over a $3.5 trillion bill that deals with everything from climate change to paid leave for workers to free community college; meanwhile, progressives are holding the a $1.2 trillion "bipartisan" infrastructure bill hostage to the larger spending bill.

Democrats believe the particulars of the spending plan are popular with the majority of Americans, but acknowledge that the size of the bill—it would be the biggest spending bill in U.S. history, dwarfing even the New Deal and Great Society legislation passed last century—has become the story. That, in part, is because two Democratic Senators, West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema, are very publicly balking at the $3.5 trillion price tag. The Democrats want to use reconciliation to pass the bill, but can't get the 51 votes needed without those two senators. (This has enraged the progressive wing of the party, who have taken to publicly harassing both Sinema and Manchin.)

McConnell wants to see if and how the Democrats resolve their differences. He has been, aides say, in frequent contact with both Manchin and Sinema, taking their temperature on the spending bill and, critically, on where they stand on maintaining the 60-vote filibuster rule in the Senate. Democrats had begun to push for a new, narrowly tailored filibuster rule that would have allowed them to pass the debt limit increase without Republican votes. Both Manchin and Sinema were under increasing pressure, and some Democrats are convinced McConnell was worried they would accede. "The filibuster forced him to cave," said Chris Coons, the Democratic senator from Delaware.

McConnell did bring up the issue in a closed door meeting with the Republicans caucus Wednesday afternoon. But just how concerned he was is not clear. Manchin later told reporters that "that was never going to happen," meaning he remained all-in on the 60-vote filibuster rule. McConnell appears to believe that will remain the case—even when this entire exercise is reprised at year's end.

McConnell's maneuver means Democrats will be fighting over the spending bills for two more months, and can't use the "we don't have time" excuse to refuse a reconciliation vote on the debt ceiling in December. With Biden's increasing weakness, Democratic alarm about next year's midterm elections is mounting. Gleeful Republicans are starting to anticipate a historic blowout in both the House and the Senate. If Democrats can't work out their internal differences and get something passed, they'll have nothing to run on next year. But even if the broader spending bill comes down to the $1.5 trillion level that Manchin publicly committed to in July, McConnell does not believe that will significantly move public opinion in its favor.

3) Making Democrats take the blame

Well-sourced Wall Streeters say the deal McConnell struck with Schumer had more to do with the mega spending bill than it did the filibuster. "I simply believe Sen. McConnell got something in exchange for this from Senators Manchin and Sinema," wrote David Bahnsen, Managing Partner of the Bahnsen Group, in a note to investors Wednesday evening. ''I see Senator Manchin now reiterating his $1.5 trillion cap on the new bill, after he had started to talk about going higher. McConnell's maneuvering here has a lot to do with the reconciliation bill."

That's likely true, McConnell's allies say. But that's not all it was about. Under the rules governing reconciliation, Democrats may be forced to assign a dollar value to the new debt ceiling level, more directly tying them to higher debt rather than just suspending the limit to a future date. And there won't be ''a Republican fingerprint on it," as Republican Senator Mike Braun of Indiana told reporters Wednesday afternoon. That, says a senior Republican senate staffer not authorized to speak on the record, "is the stuff attack ads are made of in 2022."

If, at the end of the year, McConnell relents again and does not make the Democrats wear the debt ceiling increase in a party line reconciliation vote, then the critics howling today will have been vindicated. But McConnell's allies aren't worried. The Republican leader loves to say he plays "the long game"—it's the title of his 2016 memoir—but in this case the game is not even that long. Sometimes the ''long game" lasts just a couple of months.