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Mitch McConnell’s Gang of Nihilists Can’t Be Trusted With the Debt Ceiling

When Republicans say they won’t vote to prevent default, Democrats had best believe them.

A close-up of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as he walks through the U.S. Capitol.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In recent years, we’ve seen the Republican Party cross bridge after bridge in the name of gaining partisan advantage to a degree that would have been unthinkable a couple generations ago.

Impeach a president over an affair while their own House leader was having an affair? Crossed.

Force a vote on a war of aggression in the fall of an election year? Check.

Push someone onto the Supreme Court just weeks before a presidential election, having argued four years earlier that months, not weeks, was too close to an election to take action on a Supreme Court nomination? Done.

This list could consist of 50 items, not just three, but you get the picture. And now it appears that Republicans are intent on crossing a bridge too far, one I never thought even they would cross; the Arnhem Bridge of American politics: They’re now willing to wreck the American (and even global) economy for the sake of partisan advantage.

Congress is required to raise the debt limit—or suspend it for another couple years, as it did in 2019—by sometime around October 22. Unless the Democrats either tuck it into the reconciliation bill or do something about the filibuster, this will require 10 Republican senators to go along with a vote to increase or suspend. But 46 of the 50 have signed a letter saying they won’t. And while Mitch McConnell is saying out of one side of his mouth that the country must not default on its debts, out of the other side he insists that it’s the Democrats’ sole responsibility to deal with this matter.

What a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity, as Big Daddy said. Both parties made the debt, and both parties need to agree to raise the limit. (Actually, we should do away with this debt ceiling nonsense entirely, but that’s another issue.) In fact, the debt ceiling has been increased far more often under Republican rule than Democratic. In the last 50 years, Congress has raised the debt limit 78 times; 29 under Democratic presidents and 49 under Republicans.

And these same Republicans, now threatening to risk America’s credit and reputation before the world, suspended it for two years in 2019 when Donald Trump was president. That was part of a budget deal that passed the Senate on a strong bipartisan basis, 67–28. Twenty-three Republicans voted against that deal, but a majority of them, 29, voted for it. And of course, the national debt soared under Trump. Soared. Even before the pandemic. It was around $20 trillion when he took office, nudging $24 trillion before the pandemic (but after the big 2017 tax cut), and $28 trillion when he left. Again—a majority of Republicans were totally fine with that.

But now that there’s a Democratic president, and one who wants to commit the unspeakable crime of investing in our people by giving them things that people in every other advanced democracy have, like paid family leave and free community college, Republicans suddenly care about the debt again. These. People. Are. Monsters.

The Washington Post’s Paul Kane came about as close to calling them hypocrites and liars as I’ve ever seen a straight news reporter come. Savor these two sentences, which follow the rules of objective news writing but still manage to lay bare a naked truth in a way most news writing does not: “Because Democrats control the White House and both branches of Congress, [McConnell’s] argument goes, they alone are responsible for safeguarding the government’s creditworthiness and preventing a potential economic calamity. No such rule exists, nor has it ever.”

He also called out our old friend Susan Collins. She’s one of the four Republicans who did not sign Mitch’s letter, which means she might be given a benefit of the doubt here. But Collins told Hill reporters last week that because they want to pass these ambitious domestic investment bills, the Democrats “bear the responsibility for increasing the debt limit.” Kane’s next paragraph: “Collins’s remark mischaracterizes the debt limit and ignores her own votes for policies that did or would increase the debt during both the Trump and Biden administrations. The debt limit only applies to paying for the expenses of policies already enacted, not to legislative proposals that have not been signed into law.”

Now, it’s true that the Democrats rolled the dice here. They could have simply put a debt limit increase in the reconciliation bill. They still could, I suppose. But they decided to advance it separately, which means it needs 60 Senate votes to make it a bipartisan vote (traditionally, both parties have given each other a little cover on a debt limit vote), or make the Republicans take the blame for default.

They’ve dared the Senate Republicans, in other words, to tank the economy. And McConnell has countered by saying: You just watch me. And who’s to doubt him? He’s capable of anything. There were still a few norms pre-Trump that Republicans observed. But now, with a party full of federal elected representatives who voted against certifying Joe Biden’s election and who call insurrectionist traitors “political hostages,” there are no norms anymore.

I’ve argued this many times, but it’s worth pointing out here again. Rank-and-file liberals complain that Democrats often seem to lose these legislative showdowns. And they do, but there’s a reason for it. It’s because Democrats, whatever their inadequacies and whatever measures they fail to pass, actually care about outcomes. They care about whether people have health insurance or whether we’re doing something to protect the planet. Republicans, who have no domestic agenda beyond tax cuts and deregulation, don’t care about outcomes at all, and when you don’t care about outcomes, you’re free to be a nihilist.

Democrats probably should just find a way to do this themselves. Don’t tempt McConnell and the Republicans—and the right-wing media, which in mid-October will be spreading the lie that the debt is entirely the fault of the tax-and-spend Democrats. Again: These people are capable of anything.