Republicans are beating Democrats at a game of chicken in the Senate

Republicans are beating Democrats at a game of chicken in the Senate
Chuck Schumer
AFGE // https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Let's set aside the distant possibility of the United States government defaulting on its debt. Despite what you are reading and hearing, there is no real chance of that happening. The United States Congress is going to raise the debt ceiling. Whether this game of chicken has any real-world effect — whether it lowers the US rating among crediting agencies, as transpired the last time around — is a different matter.

Make no mistake, though. It's a game of chicken and the Republicans in the United States Senate are winning. I would say, if we're going to be honest with ourselves, that the Republicans are humiliating the Democrats. Democratic allies are laboring mightily to obscure that.

They are pointing the finger at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, accusing him of hypocrisy. When he was in charge, the Senate GOP raised the cap, no questions asked, with the help of the Democrats. Now that he's not, he and all of the Senate Republicans are voting against raising the cap, despite knowing full well that if it isn't lifted, it would mean economic calamity for the country and the world.

Don't be conned by the Democratic partisans, though. McConnell is not a hypocrite. To be a hypocrite, you have to say one thing but mean something else. McConnell means exactly what he says, to wit: There are two standards. One for his party. One for the other. If today one thing works for him, so be it. If tomorrow the same thing doesn't, so be it. Being a hypocrite requires having some degree of dedication to moral consistency. McConnell has no such dedication. Never did.

This is not to praise him, mind you. Elizabeth Warren was entirely correct in asking Wednesday, "Are we hostage to Republicans who are threatening to blow up a part of the economic system because they want to do that for politics?" We should be asking that question. We should be denouncing the GOP for playing chicken with something as important as the full faith and credit of the United States government. But to answer the question: Yes, "we" are hostage to the Republicans.

The Republicans want the cap lifted. They know what the stakes are. They know the Democrats know, too. Failing to lift it is unthinkable. The Republicans also know they aren't going to win in the end. The Democrats can't get 60 voters on account of the GOP filibuster, but they can raise the cap using a process called reconciliation. (That requires a simple majority. Kamala Harris would be the tie-breaker.) There are only so many times they can use reconciliation, though. McConnell may be forcing the Democrats to use them all up before they get their act together to pass the president's big spending bills.

But the Republicans' short-term accomplishment is raking the Democrats over the hot coals of public humiliation. Why do I say that? Warren and the Democrats are not powerless. They could neutralize McConnell's advantage any time they wanted to. They are choosing not to use the power they have. They are instead complaining about the fact that Mitch McConnell is a terrible human being. Blaming him only serves to distract us from the real issue of the debt-ceiling story.

Of course I'm talking about the filibuster. The Senate rule requiring bills to reach 60 votes is why the Republicans are able to jam the Democrats. The Democrats could reform the filibuster any time. It takes 51 votes to change a rule. But a few of the Democrats, namely Joe Manchin, don't want to touch it. They have their reasons, but the outcome of holding on to the rule is standing by while your party is raked over the hot coals of public humiliation. Are "we" hostage to the Republicans? Kinda. Mostly the Democrats are hostage to themselves.

Manchin isn't the only Senate Democrat to stand by the filibuster. He is the most vocal, though, about the need for bipartisanship and about the filibuster forcing it to happen. This has always been nonsense, but the Republicans jamming the Democrats on the debt ceiling using the filibuster proves it. And it proves something else. Why would anyone want bipartisanship with people who not only play chicken with something as important as the full faith and credit of the United States government, but also rake you over the hot coals of public humiliation?

Manchin and the other Democrats who stand by the filibuster as-is seem indifferent to most arguments for reform, but perhaps they'd be more receptive to appeals to their pride: Do we really want to keep surrendering to the hostage takers for the sake of a rule? The answer might be yes, but we won't know until someone asks.

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