Mitch McConnell is pitching a skeptical Senate Republican Conference on a path toward allowing Democrats to more easily raise the debt ceiling on Tuesday afternoon, a critical meeting as the country faces a mid-December debt cliff.
Minority Leader McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are discussing ways to allow Democrats to quickly raise the debt limit without Republican votes. But several of the scenarios involve needing GOP votes to set up that process, giving McConnell a potentially difficult whipping job in his 50-member conference.
"We all know the debt limit has to be raised and we know the Democrats are going to be delivering the votes to do it. The question is, what's the process?" said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell's top deputy. "I know we've got to raise the debt limit. And I have no intention of voting to raise the debt limit, if we enable or allow a process that enables the Democrats to do it? Again, I'm going to wait and see what the leader has to say."
Thune was among 11 Republicans who voted to break a filibuster on raising the debt ceiling in October, an internal debacle for McConnell, who had spent weeks insisting Democrats raise the debt limit via the budget reconciliation process. McConnell is trying to avoid a sequel to that episode, although several of the scenarios being discussed will require Republicans like Thune to grease the skids for Democrats.
It's a critical moment for the GOP leader, who comes under incessant attack from former President Donald Trump for his maneuvering as minority leader in the 50-50 Senate. Already his members have panned tying a debt ceiling increase to the National Defense Authorization Act, though there are other options available.
"They control the agenda in the Senate. There's no reason for us to try and facilitate anything for them again," said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who helped break the October filibuster. "I can be pretty pragmatic. But this one?"
"I like them having to use the reconciliation process. And to the degree we could help facilitate that a little easier, I'm fine with," said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). "I'm a little less enthused about" the other fast-track options.
House Democratic leaders on Tuesday were still finalizing their plan to address the defense bill and debt limit together, putting in doubt aspirations of voting as soon as Tuesday night. Democrats were leaning towards the idea of voting on the annual defense bill and a process to tee up action on the debt limit separately, leaving it up to the Senate to overcome a filibuster to pass both measures.
If successful, the Senate would then still have to vote to address the debt limit - either by raising it or suspending it - but the process would make an exception to Senate rules so Democrats would only need 51 votes to do so. Schumer reported "good progress" in their talks on Tuesday morning and continued sounding a different note than he did in October, when he and McConnell went to war daily over the debt limit.
"I'm optimistic that we will be able to prevent the awful prospect of the U.S. defaulting," Schumer said. "I continue to thank all of my colleagues for cooperating in good faith."
House leaders hoped to vote as soon as Tuesday evening on the convoluted plan, but several Democrats predicted the effort could slip to Wednesday. The legislative gymnastics over the debt limit mostly ignores the possibility of using the party-line budget reconciliation process to raise the debt limit, which McConnell said for weeks was his preference.
Further complicating matters, several House members traveled to Florida on Tuesday for late Rep. Carrie Meek's funeral, and members of the Armed Services panel were still finalizing text of the defense bill at the same time. Democrats are also racing to avoid as much as $14 billion in cuts to Medicare payments next year, triggered in part by the budget reconciliation process used to pass Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package in March. Those cuts would also hit popular farm aid programs.
Regardless, the House hopes to wrap its work Wednesday in preparation for services to honor former Sen. Bob Dole starting Thursday. Dole, who died Sunday, will lie in state in the Capitol rotunda later this week.
This is technically the last week the House is scheduled to be in session until mid-January, although Speaker Nancy Pelosi has warned members they could return at some point over the holidays if the Senate passes Democrats' $1.7 trillion social and climate policy bill by then.