All eyes are on the debt ceiling this week as Republicans in Congress position themselves once again as the party of obstruction. What ought to be a routine, bipartisan move to raise the limit on the nation's ability to borrow—after all, it's right there in the Constitution, Amendment XIV, that the validity of the public debt of the United States shall not be questioned—has instead become an opportunity for political hostage-taking and blame-shifting.
Republicans are in effect throwing a tantrum; because they have decided to oppose the Democrats' budget reconciliation bill in every aspect, they have also refused to cooperate on anything budget-related such as the critical need for the country to be able to pay its obligations, including the $7.8 trillion in additional debt incurred under their watch during the Trump years. Their behavior is akin to a rowdy bunch of managers running up a huge tab in a VIP suite that the rest of the company wasn't even allowed to enter, then dashing out to leave their co-workers holding the check.
Republican senators like Ted Cruz intend to filibuster any bill that raises the debt limit, essentially forcing Democrats to put the debt ceiling (and the funding of the government itself) into the massive reconciliation bill the Republicans so despise, or to force President Joe Biden to declare the debt ceiling limit unconstitutional and look even more the part of the autocrat they claim him to be. In this, Republicans think they are being clever, but this maneuver could actually backfire badly. In fact, it truly feels like the GOP hasn't thought this through very well.
The main obstacle to getting the massive reconciliation bill through is Senator Joe Manchin, who is on record as opposing the size of the bill because, he argues, so much new spending might lead to inflation. Manchin has taken specific issue with the speed at which the bill is being pushed through and has has privately urged a "pause" on its consideration till as late as 2022. But if, thanks to the GOP, the debt ceiling is now inexorably linked to the budget bill, there is no way Congress can wait that long. In fact, sometime in October the government will run out of money and unless the debt ceiling is raised the U.S. will risk the unthinkable: a default on its public obligations. That would throw millions out of work and hurl the economy and indeed the entire world into a new recession. By forcing Democrats to carry the debt ceiling burden alone and resolve it no later than the end of October, the GOP has undercut Manchin's most powerful weapon: delay.
As for the fate of the budget bill, Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Schumer announced on Thursday that they had reached agreement on a framework for how to pay for the reconciliation package, though the top-line amount was not yet determined. The danger faced by the Democrats is that the progressive and moderate wings of their party will not reach agreement on the size of the bill, risking both the budget bill and the infrastructure bill going down in flames—a huge political failure. But the GOP's gambit on the debt ceiling may ironically force moderates in the Democratic party to either 1) support a change to the filibuster rule so that Democrats can raise the debt ceiling on their own outside of reconciliation, or 2) support a reconciliation bill with a higher price tag than they would have agreed to otherwise.
Failure would not be an option because it would wreck the economy, and not just their own political fortunes. This prospect even gives progressives a new bogeyman: Should they wish to compromise at all off the top-line amount, they can point to the GOP's dangerous games as the cause, rather than blame their fellow Democrats. In short, the GOP threat is the very kind of political cover that Democratic holdouts might readily appreciate and utilize, especially when pushed to the edge of the abyss.
The GOP's continued failure to do anything except create as much chaos as possible, score points with their base by acting like children, or own the libs for the sake of Fox News and Twitter likes has led already to disastrous consequences, including tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths from the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, with a gun pointed squarely at the economy's head, Republicans think they can taunt their political enemies into paralysis, warning that "Democrats must go it alone or they'll shoot!"
Would anyone be surprised, then, if this actually pushed Democrats to go it alone?