Debt ceiling debate twist: Sen. Mitch McConnell filibusters himself

Yes, another debt-ceiling debate is looming, and the Senate's attempt to deal with the issue Thursday involved complex legislative machinations that appeared to backfire on Mitch McConnell.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky (right) talks with Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming as they walk to meet reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday following a GOP strategy luncheon.

Just in case the pending political apocalypse of the "fiscal cliff" wasn't enough to satisfy America's attention span, the US Senate on Thursday conspired to remind voters that another equally apocalyptic fiscal issue is looming out there on the horizon.

Yes, the debt ceiling will be making a comeback no later than early 2013, and senators decided to talk about it Thursday.

Not surprisingly, it illuminated the complicated politics and policy that go along with raising the national borrowing limit these days. And also not surprisingly, perhaps, it went nowhere, concluding with the somewhat comical scene of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky filibustering his own proposal.

Welcome to Capitol Hill.

The story begins with President Obama's own debt-ceiling proposal. Essentially, on Wednesday, his Treasury Department asked Congress to cede its power over the debt ceiling to him.

This is how it would work: The president would ask to raise the debt limit and Congress would have 15 days to pass a joint resolution of disapproval. The president could then veto their disapproval and require Congress to override his veto with 60 percent majorities in both bodies.

The proposal was important for two reasons.

First, it mirrored a plan originally proposed by Senator McConnell back in 2011 for raising the debt ceiling, giving Democrats the slim political cover to call it the “McConnell Provision.” 
 
Second, it would shift effective control of the debt-ceiling debate from Capitol Hill to the White House – and would give Congress a very high vote threshold to block the measure, to boot.

Democrats – and some in the business community – like this approach because it would almost certainly prevent political confrontation from pushing the US into a default on its debts. When Congress and the White House tip-toed up to that possibility last summer, stock markets, consumer confidence, and business investment tanked. Actually defaulting could be catastrophic, economists warn.

But there’s another view on the debt ceiling.

On Wednesday night, Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio sent a letter to the White House cosigned by 43 GOP Senators (enough to sustain a filibuster and block the legislation) telling the president, in short, to forget about his debt ceiling dream.

Senator Portman and his colleagues argue that the debt limit has helped focus Washington’s attention on the issue of debt and deficits, and that significant debt-reduction deals in the past have been attached to hikes in the debt ceiling.

“In short, nearly every significant deficit reduction law of the past 27 years has been linked to a debt limit debate,” the letter said. “For Congress to surrender its control over the debt limit would be to permanently surrender what has long provided the best opportunity to enact bipartisan deficit reduction legislation.”

But never underestimate the congressional urge to make your opponents look silly.

Out of the blue, McConnell came to the floor Thursday and asked for a vote on the president’s proposal.

McConnell was hoping to put Democrats in the awkward position of having to vote for ceding Congress’s authority over the debt ceiling to the president. As he put it in his morning remarks, “by demanding the power to raise the debt limit whenever he wants by as much as he wants, he showed what he’s really after is assuming unprecedented power to spend taxpayer dollars without any limit.”

Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada objected, putting Democrats in the position of blocking a vote on their president’s proposal. Yet within hours, Democrats sensed a way to turn the tables – and were ready to call McConnell’s bluff.

They returned to the floor and offered to bring the matter up for a vote immediately, concluding that, politically speaking, they would be happy to argue that fixing the debt ceiling permanently was the fiscally responsible thing to do – even at the cost of congressional authority.

“Our downgrade of America’s credit rating was not based on the state of our economy but the debt-ceiling debate,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois to reporters after the affair. “We are paying dearly for that already. So the Republicans are creating a situation which makes reducing the debt and deficit extremely difficult by creating this uncertainty about the debt ceiling.”

So what did Mitch McConnell do, facing a vote on his own suggestion from just hours before?

He offered two magic words – “I object” – and filibustered his own suggestion.

With that move, the threshold to pass the bill jumped from a simple majority to 60 votes and the vote was abandoned, though Senator Reid promised to push for a vote on the matter in the weeks to come.

The result? The entire debt-ceiling debate had gone no further than it started the day.

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