Filibuster Devotees Rob Democrats Of Any Leverage In Debt Ceiling Standoff

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 28: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (R-AZ) arrives for a lunch meeting with Senate Democrats at the U.S Capitol on September 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
September 28, 2021 6:14 p.m.

Democrats, steaming over what they see as abject Republican hypocrisy and recklessness over the debt ceiling, are trying really hard not to capitulate to the opposition party. 

Democratic leadership in both chambers resoundingly swatted down the idea of hiking the debt ceiling through reconciliation, citing the procedural difficulties and uncertain timeframe involved with amending their budget resolution. 

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) asked for unanimous consent Tuesday on a bill to suspend the debt limit, first giving a press conference in which he warned Republicans that they’d be considered dishonest and dangerous if they blocked it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) did, immediately. 

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While Democrats are trying to match Republicans’ power play by insisting that the debt ceiling be addressed through regular order, they’re impossibly hamstrung by the filibuster devotion of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). 

“If they don’t provide votes, we’re going to do what needs to be done to save the credit worthiness of this country,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told reporters, referring to Republicans, when asked if Democrats were considering reforming the filibuster to get the debt ceiling suspension passed. 

McConnell appears completely unbowed by the threat, confident in the recalcitrance of Manchin and Sinema. Democrats have spent months trying to win the two senators over on voting rights, the common wisdom being that the issue is dire and dramatic enough to sway the lawmakers into at least embracing filibuster reform — perhaps a carveout to the rule for issues pertaining to democracy and the franchise. A group of senators worked during recess to tweak a piece of voting rights legislation, the better to get Manchin on board and one step closer to changing his mind on the Senate rule. 

The new bill was written, Manchin’s cosponsors are arranging fruitless meetings with Republicans to help him win over GOP votes, yet his calculus on the filibuster seems unchanged. 

Republicans celebrate the blockade these two Democratic senators happily maintain. Their confidence in Democrats’ self-limiting was surely only strengthened by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s comments Tuesday about President Joe Biden’s enduring support of the filibuster, even in the face of the debt ceiling fight. 

“The President’s position has not changed on that,” she said.

Those positions make Democratic threats, particularly now, completely hollow. 

Democrats can hold as many angry press conferences as they want. They can force Republicans to vote down legislation that would avert economic catastrophe born from the United States exceeding its borrowing limit again and again, and shame them for it. 

But at the moment, they lack leverage, and McConnell knows it. Without any way to pass the debt ceiling legislation through regular order thanks to the filibuster guarding the gates, they’ll have to do it through reconciliation — or match Republicans’ high-stakes game of political chicken, and wait to see which side blinks first. 

That kind of win-at-all-costs tactic, though, is not the usual Democratic way. And McConnell knows that too.

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