A Debt Ceiling Ace in the Hole?

Originally published in The Washington Monthly on October 8th, 2013.

With tensions over the government shutdown rising and the markets beginning to burnThe Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky wrote yesterday that the Democrats just might have a workable plan- an unlikely solution from the unlikeliest source.

In 2011, Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell proposed granting the president the authority to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling. Rather than requiring Congressional approval, Congress would have a chance only to veto it.

Two years later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is now considering reviving the bill in order to effectively destroy the Republicans’ weapon of choice in this era of dangerous and irresponsible fiscal brinksmanship. Why would McConnell have made such a proposed in the first place? According to Tomasky:

Not because he wanted to do something nice for [Obama]. Rather, it was to spare Congress the trouble of having to cast a difficult vote, and to make the president take all the political heat for increasing the debt limit, a move that never polls well. So in 2011, this would have given Republicans and Mitt Romney another arrow—the profligate Obama irresponsibly raising our debt, etc etc.

So an idea that was once conceived of to make Obama appear reckless compared to Mitt Romney on the campaign trail is now being thrown back in the Republicans’ faces. And even better? The proposal could be a win-win for the Democrats—whether or not it actually passes.

After all, if Reid proposes the bill and it goes to a vote, the Senate Dems would pass it handily, making Reid and his colleagues look like heroes. Alternatively, if Reid proposes the bill and McConnell & Co. counter with a filibuster, a likely possibility, then the Republicans are left looking surly and obstructionist—blocking a bill that was originally proposed by McConnell himself. (Oh, the political theater!)

If Reid proposes the bill and it’s passed by the Senate (with, presumably, at least a few Republican votes), and then goes to the House, John Boehner and friends would be under a huge amount of pressure to pass it, too—especially since it’s likely to be widely popular among a public panicked about the prospect of default. But as the pressure mounts and heels are dug in on all sides, what happens next is anyone’s guess.


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