Has there ever been a more obvious moment where it made sense to do away with the filibuster?
Congress is in the midst of a standoff over the debt limit that, improbably, is somehow even more inane and exasperating than ones Americans have previously been forced to endure. The government is scheduled to run out of cash to pay its obligations some time in October unless lawmakers give it more authority to borrow, setting the stage for a self-inflicted fiscal and economic crisis. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that such an outcome would be bad and that the debt ceiling ought to be raised, but are playing an insane game of chicken over the process.
Democrats, for their part, want to raise the government’s credit limit with a bipartisan vote so that their members don’t have to worry about being pelted with campaign ads about how they agreed to add a big scary number to the national debt. But Republicans say Democrats should buck up and increase the ceiling on their own. The GOP has a few justifications for their stance, but as my colleague Jim Newell recently wrote, the issue mostly boils down to the fact that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would like to make the effort as politically torturous as possible for his opponents. The GOP doesn’t have any actual policy demands in exchange for their votes, as they did in 2011 or 2013. They just want it to be a party-line affair. To that end, McConnell has gone so far as to create a new rule out of thin air: that whenever a party has unified control of Congress and the White House, it alone should be responsible for dealing with the debt limit. As he told Punchbowl News:
Let me make it perfectly clear. The country must never default. The debt ceiling will need to be raised. But who does that depends on who the American people elect. I have voted a number of times to raise the debt ceiling in divided government.
I voted to raise the debt ceiling to cover all of the spending through the present, as part of a bipartisan negotiated caps deal between the previous administration, the speaker and myself. So the only issue is, whose responsibility is it to do it? A Democratic president, a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate.
We have opposed virtually everything they’ve done this year. They’ve done it through two reconciliation bills, a rescue bill and now they’re trying to do it again. It’s their obligation. They should step up. It’s hard being in the majority. They are the ones who will raise the debt limit.
Again, this is the sort of story that makes sane people want to hurl their laptop and phone down a stairwell and possibly blind themselves to avoid reading political news ever again. (Go on, chuck that Mac. I’ll be here waiting.)
Democrats have said they are happy to vote for a debt-limit increase with 50 votes using regular order, which would conveniently allow them to simply suspend the limit, rather than hike it by a specific number that could repeated in a campaign spot. The problem is that Republicans have basically promised to filibuster such a move.
Instead, McConnell and the GOP want Democrats to hike the debt ceiling using the budget-reconciliation process, which the party is relying on to pass much of Joe Biden’s social-spending agenda without Republican support. This approach would be a massive pain in the ass that would require procedural moves that haven’t been tried in about 40 years, while burning precious legislative time and possibly further derailing the party’s stuttering efforts to enact its platform, which is why it appeals to McConnell and not to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
In a sane world, there would be a simple solution to this problem: Democrats would eliminate the filibuster on debt-ceiling votes (which they can do with a simple majority), suspend the borrowing limit, and move on. After all, there is absolutely no credible argument left for keeping it in place in these circumstances. Both Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, the Senate’s most vocal defenders of the 60-vote rule, have said they think it is worth keeping in place because it fosters bipartisanship. But when it comes to the debt limit, McConnell and his conference are now insisting that the votes must be partisan. There will be no across-the-aisle negotiation for anybody to cluck about. By Manchin and Sinema’s own logic, the filibuster is doing absolutely nothing here, except making Democrats’ lives a bit more miserable, which might personally give them some weird jolt of pleasure but does nothing for America’s long-term political stability. There isn’t even the implicit dynamic where they’re using the supposed sanctity of the filibuster as a fig leaf to avoid taking a vote they actually just want to avoid, such as on an issue like immigration reform. The only possible argument they could resort to is a slippery-slope case, that opening a crack on the filibuster here would create an incentive to completely nuke it down the line. But that’s not especially compelling, given that they themselves would have the power to block any such action (and considering that the filibuster has been weakened before and yet we’re still having these torturous debates). The only thing potentially crashing down a slope right now is the full faith and credit of the United States.
Now, do I think Democrats will exercise the sane option here? Not really. But sometimes it’s worth pointing out the obvious.