Whistling Past the Debt Ceiling

Republicans are betting Democrats will submit to an uncomfortable reconciliation process rather than let the country go careening off an economic cliff.

Good morning from the nation’s capital. We’re two weeks out from a catastrophic debt default, and neither side is showing any signs yet of blinking in their staredown over how to address the problem.

Republicans are expected to filibuster a standalone measure to suspend the debt ceiling when it comes forward for a procedural vote tomorrow. GOP senators have already blocked two other attempts to suspend the ceiling through December 2022. Republican leaders say they don’t oppose raising the debt limit, they just think Democrats should have to do it themselves.

Much of the obligations in question stem from spending passed under former President Donald Trump. Nonetheless, Republicans are tying the debt ceiling to Democrats’ plans to pass a massive social investments package through the budget reconciliation process. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is calling for Democrats to approve a debt ceiling hike through reconciliation, a process that would take up floor time in the face of an October 18 deadline and would subject Senate Democrats to a series of uncomfortable votes on amendments as part of the process.

(Alternatively, if Democrats don’t want to pursue the change through reconciliation, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine helpfully suggested yesterday, they could win Republican support for raising the debt limit by simply abandoning their domestic agenda.)

If you’re picking up on the fact that this fight is overtly political, you’re right. Here are some pertinent comments from Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott yesterday:

“They’re going to get held accountable for it,” Scott, who chairs the GOP Senate campaign organization, told NBC News of raising the debt ceiling and the 2022 midterms.

Asked if the NRSC will focus on it in their campaign messaging, he responded, “Oh, you better believe it.”

(Economist Alan Cole—whose new Substack is very much worth subscribing to—has a great piece on the political dynamics at play here).

Democratic leaders have rejected Republicans’ procedural demands thus far. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday pulled out the big guns where Senate negotiations are concerned: He threatened to keep the chamber in session through the weekend, “and possibly through the recess, to finish our work.”

It is possible for Democrats to raise the debt ceiling through reconciliation, though, and they have had advance notice of this fight for several months. Republican leaders made clear that this would be their position in July. (Democrats declined a prior opportunity to raise the debt ceiling when they passed their coronavirus relief package without GOP support earlier this year.) 

The Senate parliamentarian recently determined a previously passed budget resolution could be updated with instructions to raise the debt limit, and Congress could then pass a measure not subject to the filibuster doing so. The bill could be separate from the larger, unfinished package Democrats hope to use to advance their climate change and social spending goals.

Democrats note that it’s a time-consuming process. Here’s a rundown of how it would unfold, from the WSJ:

The new instructions for the fiscal year 2022 budget resolution, which has been approved in both chambers, would have to move through the House as well as the evenly-divided Senate Budget Committee, where Republicans could block it by not showing up and denying the panel a quorum. But provided that Republicans show up and the bill gets a tie vote in the Budget Committee, a simple majority of the full Senate could vote to bring it to the floor, with Vice President Kamala Harris providing the tie breaking vote.

The Senate would then have to hold a debate and a typically long marathon of amendment votes known as “vote-a-rama”on the new revised budget resolution. Lawmakers would then write the new legislation increasing the debt limit to a specific figure, and that bill would go through the same process.

McConnell has brushed off complaints about the process. He pressed President Joe Biden in a letter yesterday to urge congressional Democrats to move forward with reconciliation.

“Bipartisanship is not a light switch that Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer may flip on to borrow money and flip off to spend it,” he wrote. “Republicans’ position is simple. We have no list of demands. For two and a half months, we have simply warned that since your party wishes to govern alone, it must handle the debt limit alone as well.”

He added that congressional Democrats have “wasted weeks complaining that this relatively brief process would inconvenience their floor schedules.”  

Democrats will discuss how to proceed during a lunch meeting this afternoon. 

“I've only been here 47 years,” Sen. Pat Leahy, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told The Dispatch of the standoff last night. “I've never seen such an irresponsible action as we're seeing by Sen. McConnell. If we forfeit the debt, you're gonna have billions of dollars lost, you're gonna have a whole lot of people who aren't working. I can't understand it.”

A War Powers Bill to Watch

Reps. Jim McGovern and Peter Meijer introduced a bipartisan measure to retake congressional war powers last week, bolstering growing efforts to overhaul presidential national security and war authorities.

The National Security Reforms and Accountability Act tightens rules for the executive branch that were first laid out in the War Powers Act nearly 50 years ago. For instance, it would shorten to 20 days the current 60-day period after which a president must end hostilities that have not been approved by Congress.

The bill would also make it easier for Congress to block military actions that have not been approved by lawmakers—it includes provisions to automatically end funding for military action absent congressional approval.

It also requires the president to lay out specific objectives and geographic limits for authorizations of the use of military force. Members of Congress would also have to vote every two years on such authorizations, or they would expire automatically. 

Sens. Chris Murphy, Bernie Sanders, and Mike Lee introduced a similar proposal in the upper chamber last month. 

“For decades, presidents of both parties have slowly but surely usurped congressional authority on matters of national security,” McGovern, who chairs the powerful House Rules Committee, said. “It’s happened regardless of who occupies the Oval Office or which party is in charge on Capitol Hill. Clearly, this is not the system of checks and balances our constitution envisions. Congress is the branch of government closest to the people and it is our duty to make tough decisions about when, where, and how to put American troops in harm’s way.”

A fact sheet about the bill is available here, and full legislative text is here. You can read more about the effort here, from Politico’s Connor O’Brien.

January 6 Committee Update

The select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol has taken major steps in recent weeks to advance its probe by issuing subpoenas to allies of former President Donald Trump. 

Members of the committee also recently began hearing testimony from witnesses who are appearing voluntarily. The nine-member panel includes only two Republicans who were willing to participate in the investigation—Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger.

So far, the committee has issued 15 subpoenas to former Trump officials and organizers of the rallies preceding the attack.

On September 23, the committee announced subpoenas for former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, former White House deputy chief of staff for communication Dan Scavino, former Trump advisor Stephen Bannon, and Kash Patel, who was chief of staff to Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller. 

The four were asked to provide documents and sit for depositions. They face a Thursday deadline to respond to the document requests.

The committee last week also issued subpoenas to 11 organizers of post-election rallies, including the “Save America” rally held directly before the attack on the Capitol. The group “Women for America First” organized several rallies to protest the election results—its chair and executive director were included in the committee’s tranche of subpoenas. Another person of interest is former Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson, who was in communication with Trump about rally plans, according to the committee. The subpoenas call for these witnesses to produce documents by October 13, with depositions set to commence October 21. 

Few of the individuals subpoenaed by the committee have said whether they will comply. Select Committee Chair Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, told reporters Friday he is ready to issue criminal referrals to witnesses who ignore the subpoenas. 

He added that the panel will issue additional subpoenas soon.

On the Floor

The House is out this week.

The Senate is in, and members will vote on confirmations of several executive appointments. Senators will also take up House-passed legislation to suspend the debt ceiling, although Republicans are expected to block it.

Key Hearings

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on renewing the Violence Against Women Act this morning. Information and livestream here.

  • A Facebook whistleblower is testifying before a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee this morning about protecting children online. Information and livestream here.

  • Former diplomats will testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee this afternoon on the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Information and livestream here.

  • A Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee will hold a hearing Wednesday afternoon about the management of drought in the western United States. Information and livestream here.

  • The House Oversight and Reform Committee will hold a hearing on the sham election audit in Arizona and threats to American democracy on Thursday morning. Information and livestream here.

Of Note

‘Some are just psychopaths’: Chinese detective in exile reveals extent of torture against Uyghurs

Jan. 6 rioters exploited little-known Capitol weak spots: A handful of unreinforced windows

Democrats begin to narrow their differences on Biden’s agenda bill

Refugee admissions hit record low, despite Biden’s reversal

Whistleblower website for Capitol Police officers launches

A month later, five zebras are still on the run in Maryland