Debt limit split shows pragmatic Republicans are declining

WASHINGTON – When 14 Senate Republicans joined forces with Democrats on Thursday to pave the way for Congress to avoid a first-ever federal default, it reflected the crucial role of the pragmatic wing of the GOP in a divided government. But it also showed just how narrow that wing has become and how willing the majority of Republicans are to use a potential tax disaster as an opening to strike President Biden and his party.

In the not-so-distant past, the debt-limit escape plan concocted by Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and Minority Leader, and Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and Majority Leader, would have been applauded by Republicans grateful for Mr. McConnell’s dexterity for getting them out of political trouble on a difficult issue.

But in today’s Republican Party, it drew considerable backlash from Mr. McConnell’s generally staunch colleagues. It shows how far the party has strayed from what it once was, and reflects a growing division within the Republican ranks, a division likely to deepen next year if Republicans gain control of the House and of the Senate through the election of new members who emerge from the primaries that reward the most right-wing – and most intransigent candidates.

Under the deal reached between the two leaders, Congress approved a brand new law – valid for one-time use – to set a simple majority threshold in the Senate for an increase in federal borrowing power, paving the way for Democrats to raise the debt ceiling on theirs next week without threat of Republican obstruction. The legislation moved forward on a 64-to-36 vote Thursday, with Mr McConnell and 13 other Republicans joining the 50 Democrats in supporting its passage while 36 Republicans opposed it. The measure was then approved and sent to Mr. Biden.

It was a classic McConnell bet to find a way to allow the debt ceiling to be raised while simultaneously allowing all Republicans to vote against it.

But most Republicans in the Senate and virtually all in the House, fearing the right-wing primaries and harsh condemnation of Mar-a-Lago, wanted nothing to do with the legislative sleight of hand. They denounced any move to allow the debt ceiling increase as complicity with the Democrats’ multibillion dollar economic program – even though the increase is mainly needed to cover spending on existing programs, some of which are supported by Republicans.

Republicans yelled that Mr McConnell should have stuck to his guns and forced Democrats to act on their own, saying he had set a dangerous precedent by giving the House a role in bending the rules of the government. Senate on filibuster.

“What we’ve done here is allow the House to change the rules of the Senate so that if you can get 10 Republicans, we’re all distributed,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican from Carolina. South. “It’s not a good idea once, 10 times, or a hundred times – by either party.”

Other Republicans said Mr McConnell put his own members in a political bind by combining the proposed debt limit with a move to reinstate Medicare cuts – included as a sweetener to generate support , forcing anyone voting against the debt ceiling bill to also register as pushing for cuts to medicare, potentially disrupting older voters.

“The disagreement that reasonable people have over the debt limit has been fused into a cynical attempt to deceive the American people,” said Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, who said his party members had the “choice between voting for a heart attack or cancer.”

But with the debt limit so incendiary among far-right conservatives as a proxy for Democratic spending plans, most Republicans have chosen to reject the legislation and risk being attacked over Medicare spending, thinking they could explain their exit.

The dispute has highlighted how motivated the Republican Party today is to be seen as accommodating Mr. Biden or the Democrats in Congress, suggesting difficulties ahead if the party takes control of the Senate and that it behooves them to increase the debt limit and perform the other bases. to govern.

To complicate matters is the fact that some of the veteran Republicans who assisted Mr. McConnell in this case – Senators Roy Blunt of Missouri, Rob Portman of Ohio and Richard Burr of North Carolina – are leaving Congress. at the end of next year, narrowing the ranks. of those willing to risk a political backlash in the interest of preventing the government from descending into chaos.

If Mr McConnell struggles to rally the current members of his Republican conference after the 2020 election which added more far-right Republicans, it will likely only become more difficult when some of his most trusted allies are gone, potentially replaced by arch-conservatives fueled by antipathy to the government and loyalty to Donald J. Trump.

The ongoing transformation of the Republican Party was further underscored on Thursday as lawmakers held memorial services in the Capitol Rotunda for Bob Dole, the former Republican Senate leader, presidential candidate and negotiator if there was one. had a.

Despite the poor outlook on Republican disagreement, Mr. McConnell’s supporters – and even some who are not happy with his strategy – have said he made the right choice in finding a way to give Republicans an exit.

“He’s looking at the big picture, and he’s looking for what’s best for the country in terms of how to overcome a crisis,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota, who opposed the plan. debt limitation law.

According to many, the Republican leader’s main miscalculation in October was that neither he nor any other Republican would help raise the debt ceiling after allowing a temporary increase to move forward – a position from which he was forced to back down.

But the allies said he had little choice. Given the current struggles of the Biden administration, Republicans see themselves in a strong position to regain control of Congress next year, and Mr McConnell and his top lieutenants were reluctant to give Democrats ammunition to turn the tide. .

They viewed the failure to raise the debt ceiling and the ensuing economic fallout as a potential political liability Republicans should avoid, even if they were uncomfortable doing so.

“It makes no sense to change the subject,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and one of those who voted to move the legislation forward. “When your opponent implodes, why interrupt? “

Republicans also noted that the deal preserved Senate filibustering, Mr McConnell’s primary goal. He feared that the continued Republican blockade against raising the debt ceiling would force the hand of the few remaining Democratic resistance fighters not to weaken the filibuster, an outcome he wanted to avoid at all costs. While the legislation created a one-time exception to the 60-vote requirement to overcome an obstruction, it only did so with the consent and cooperation of Republicans.

Finally, the deal will require Democrats to set a specific amount for the increase rather than something more amorphous, providing what Mr McConnell and other Republicans saw as a good stick for the midterm election. as they hammer Democrats on spending and inflation.

Ultimately, Mr McConnell hopes the machinations and infighting will be forgotten, and voters will only remember that the Democrats themselves raised the federal debt ceiling by hundreds of millions – possibly thousands. billions of dollars, triggering a backlash that brings Republicans back to power. .

Next, Mr. McConnell will have to figure out how to govern with colleagues who seem less and less interested in doing so.

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