McConnell Says Democrats’ Glee on Debt Limit Deal Was Premature
“Let’s put it this way,” Mr. McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, said Monday in an interview for The New York Times podcast “The New Washington.” “The deal is not quite as good as my counterpart thought it was.”
The reason? Mr. McConnell said that he insisted the newly passed legislation preserve Treasury’s ability to apply “extraordinary measures” and shift money within government accounts to pay off debt and extend federal borrowing power.
That will delay the need for another increase
in the debt limit well beyond the December deadline that Democrats have been trumpeting as their big moment of leverage. And Mr. McConnell said he did so over the objections of Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader and aforementioned counterpart.
In fact, Mr. McConnell said, the debt limit will not have to be increased until well into 2018, taking that volatile subject off the table for the December spending talks, and eliminating the Democrats’ most dangerous bargaining chip in the first round of negotiations.
Separating the debt ceiling from the deadline to fund the government also addresses one of the main complaints of conservatives who were unhappy that last week’s legislation linked hurricane relief and the increase in the debt limit, forcing many to either cast a debt limit vote they were unhappy about or to oppose hurricane relief.
“Since I was in charge of drafting the debt ceiling provision that we inserted into the flood bill we likely — almost certainly — are not going to have another debt ceiling discussion until well into 2018,” said Mr. McConnell.
Clearly irked by the perception that he got rolled by Democrats when President Trump accepted their proposal for a three-month extension of the debt limit and government funding, Mr. McConnell, an avid college football fan, said Democrats “spiked the ball in the end zone a little too early.” Instead, he said, he used his majority leader’s position to make something of an end run.
“One of the advantages of being the majority leader is you control the paper,” Mr. McConnell said, referring to legislation. “I wrote it in such a way that it does not prevent what is frequently done, which is the use of extraordinary measures. The minority leader and his team were trying to get us not to write it that way, but I did write it that way and that is the way it passed.”
Under the scenario Mr. McConnell sketched out, the December talks will now focus on hurricane relief and other budgetary matters and the administration can tell Democrats “see you next year on the debt ceiling.”
“I think I can safely say the debt ceiling and the spending issue in December will be decoupled because the debt ceiling will not come up until sometime in 2018,” he said.
The length of the increase in federal borrowing authority was a main sticking point in last week’s White House showdown that ended with Mr. Trump embracing the Democratic approach — his first real reach across the aisle on a major issue. Mr. McConnell and Speaker Paul D. Ryan were hoping for a much longer extension, possibly past next year’s election, and were caught off guard by the president’s acquiescence.
But though they are in the majority, Republicans need Democratic votes to raise the debt limit since many conservatives simply will not vote to do so. That dynamic is what caused Mr. Trump to accept the Democratic proffer.
Democrats were hoping that the same combination of factors — expiring federal funding and a necessary debt limit hike — would play to their advantage again in December, allowing them to cut an even bigger and more favorable deal that would cover spending for the rest of the fiscal year and other issues such as bipartisan legislation to stabilize health insurance markets and the immigration fight over young, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
Mr. McConnell’s strategy now is to break the two issues apart and try to put Republicans in a better position in the spending talks, leaving the debt limit for 2018.
Democrats, assessing the situation, said they were not sure it would inhibit them that significantly and were skeptical that Mr. McConnell would follow through since it would put Republicans on the spot for two difficult votes.
They said Republicans would still likely need Democratic votes for both the spending bill to come as well as the debt limit hike. A spending impasse could lead to a government shutdown that Mr. McConnell has been determined to avoid while a failure to raise the debt ceiling could cause a government default — an even more catastrophic outcome. And the debt limit fight would now be pushed into a difficult midterm election year when Republicans might be even more averse.
Mr. Trump’s decision to side with the Democrats was a startling one and sparked complaints from some lawmakers and conservative advocacy groups about the inability of Republican congressional leaders to head it off. And Mr. Trump’s choice came after he had spent recent weeks lamenting the failure of Mr. McConnell to deliver on repealing the health care law.
Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, made clear in a “60 Minutes” interview Sunday night that he considered Mr. McConnell and Mr. Ryan to be a significant part of the Washington problem, not part of the solution.
Mr. McConnell refused to take the bait and would not engage on the subject of Mr. Bannon. “I don’t have any reaction to it,” said Mr. McConnell, known for steely discipline when he decides not to answer a question.
But he was quite willing to talk about the move he made in the debt limit fight, hoping to quell talk that the Republicans got taken. Whether or not they did will be determined in the coming months.
By CARL HULSE