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Why McConnell Speaks for Himself in the Debt Limit Fight

Sen. Mitch McConnell would like to make a deal.

I still maintain that Mitch McConnell’s insistence on including Medicare in the debt limit negotiations represents a threat, that the Democrats must bail the GOP out of the ditch they’ve fallen into with their embrace of the Paul Ryan budget. However, he has been talking about this in a very peculiar, unique way, which Jed Lewison pointed out recently. Jed noticed that McConnell made a point of speaking for himself. “To get my vote, for me, it’s going to take short term [cuts, via spending caps]… Both medium and long-term, entitlements,” McConnell said at one point.

How the Senate Minority Leader will vote is certainly an indicator for the rest of the caucus. However, it’s not indicative of whether McConnell would lead a filibuster on the subject, or whip his colleagues to block the vote, or even force a cloture vote and a 60-vote threshold. Jed writes:

Senate Republicans are in the minority, and Democrats don’t need his vote to raise the debt limit. In fact, it’s hard to see any scenario under which he votes to raise the debt limit unless Democrats agree to a bad deal.

There’s always a slim chance McConnell could support a filibuster of the debt limit, but given the defections he had over the Ryan plan, it’s hard to see him throwing the U.S. into default simply to win support for cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. (And if Senate Republicans really are willing to do something that destructive, then there was no way a deal could have been reached with them in the first place.)

You have to take into account the particular political dynamic in the Senate, as opposed to the House. The best-case scenario in the Senate for McConnell is that the debt limit passes with 53 votes, all Democrats. That’s because it’s an unpopular vote, and he’d like his colleagues across the aisle who have tough elections coming up next year to shoulder the burden. 23 Democrats are up for re-election in the Senate, compared to only 10 Republicans. McConnell would like to see Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester and Ben Nelson and Joe Manchin have to vote for increasing the ceiling on the nation’s debt. That’s probably his main goal – a successful debt limit vote pinned entirely on Democrats. The House has a GOP caucus with a more ideological character, and being in the majority they cannot just force an unpopular vote from Democrats (though they’ll certainly try later today when they offer a “clean” debt limit increase for a vote). So they have to get the concessions. [cont’d.]

There’s also some political payback here. Harry Reid forced McConnell’s GOP to take all the votes for a debt limit increase back in 2006. McConnell wants to return the favor. Notably, Democrats didn’t filibuster that vote. The same dynamic may apply here.

McConnell is content with just throwing things from the bleachers on this issue. I think he’d like to get the heat off his members for the Ryan budget, and he’s already expressed his preference for a “grand bargain” that takes these issues off the table in a general election. But really, his goal is to damage his opponents. That’s why he confines his commentary to himself in particular.

…I’ll be away from the blog for a few hours, but more exciting blogging to come after that!

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Why McConnell Speaks for Himself in the Debt Limit Fight

I still maintain that Mitch McConnell’s insistence on including Medicare in the debt limit negotiations represents a threat, that the Democrats must bail the GOP out of the ditch they’ve fallen into with their embrace of the Paul Ryan budget. However, he has been talking about this in a very peculiar, unique way, which Jed Lewison pointed out recently. Jed noticed that McConnell made a point of speaking for himself. “To get my vote, for me, it’s going to take short term [cuts, via spending caps]… Both medium and long-term, entitlements,” McConnell said at one point.

How the Senate Minority Leader will vote is certainly an indicator for the rest of the caucus. However, it’s not indicative of whether McConnell would lead a filibuster on the subject, or whip his colleagues to block the vote, or even force a cloture vote and a 60-vote threshold. Jed writes:

Senate Republicans are in the minority, and Democrats don’t need his vote to raise the debt limit. In fact, it’s hard to see any scenario under which he votes to raise the debt limit unless Democrats agree to a bad deal.

There’s always a slim chance McConnell could support a filibuster of the debt limit, but given the defections he had over the Ryan plan, it’s hard to see him throwing the U.S. into default simply to win support for cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. (And if Senate Republicans really are willing to do something that destructive, then there was no way a deal could have been reached with them in the first place.)

You have to take into account the particular political dynamic in the Senate, as opposed to the House. The best-case scenario in the Senate for McConnell is that the debt limit passes with 53 votes, all Democrats. That’s because it’s an unpopular vote, and he’d like his colleagues across the aisle who have tough elections coming up next year to shoulder the burden. 23 Democrats are up for re-election in the Senate, compared to only 10 Republicans. McConnell would like to see Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester and Ben Nelson and Joe Manchin have to vote for increasing the ceiling on the nation’s debt. That’s probably his main goal – a successful debt limit vote pinned entirely on Democrats. The House has a GOP caucus with a more ideological character, and being in the majority they cannot just force an unpopular vote from Democrats (though they’ll certainly try later today when they offer a “clean” debt limit increase for a vote). So they have to get the concessions.

There’s also some political payback here. Harry Reid forced McConnell’s GOP to take all the votes for a debt limit increase back in 2006. McConnell wants to return the favor. Notably, Democrats didn’t filibuster that vote. The same dynamic may apply here.

McConnell is content with just throwing things from the bleachers on this issue. I think he’d like to get the heat off his members for the Ryan budget, and he’s already expressed his preference for a “grand bargain” that takes these issues off the table in a general election. But really, his goal is to damage his opponents. That’s why he confines his commentary to himself in particular.

…I’ll be away from the blog for a few hours, but more exciting blogging to come after that!

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David Dayen

David Dayen