Reporter’s Notebook: Debt ceiling fight sparks unusual maneuvers from both parties

McConnell faces Trump anger over his debt ceiling moves

The House and Senate are poised to lift the debt ceiling this week. 

But how they got there is quite a tale. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is correct about one thing after he forged an agreement with Democrats on the debt ceiling. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell introduces Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at the Heritage Foundation on Oct. 21, 2021, in Washington.  ( Drew Angerer/Getty Images / Getty Images)


McConnell says the pact "allows the Democrats to proudly own it. Which they’re happy to do." 

Thanks to the special pact, House and Senate Democrats will raise the debt ceiling on their own. Republicans won’t support the plan. 

But what’s not as clear is whether McConnell actually "helped" raise the debt ceiling. 

It depends on whom you talk to. 

McConnell was firm earlier this fall that if Democrats were going to spend so much money on their social spending package, they should lift the debt ceiling "on their own." 

Democrats were already planning to use the special, filibuster-proof procedure known as budget reconciliation to pass their domestic agenda package. Republicans argued Democrats should go that route on the debt ceiling – and the GOP wouldn’t have to play along. 

Democrats didn’t use reconciliation. And, the Senate lifted the debt ceiling in October without Republican votes. Only Democrats voted yea. 

But this is where it gets complicated whether McConnell "helped" or not. 

After his initial resistance, McConnell worked quietly behind the scenes with Democrats in October to have 11 Senate GOPers vote yes to break a filibuster – just to get the Senate through the necessary procedural hoops and onto the actual debt ceiling increase bill. Cracking a filibuster requires 60 votes. There are only 50 Senate Democrats. So Democrats couldn’t overcome a filibuster by themselves. They needed an assist from Republicans. 

Once those 11 Republicans voted to clear the procedural hurdle, they voted no on actually lifting the debt ceiling. Democrats carried the freight on their own. 

So, is that "helping" or not? 

But earlier in the fall, McConnell believed Senate Democrats, and, in particular, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., took advantage of Republicans and their "goodwill." In a letter to President Biden, McConnell torched Democrats over what he characterized as their "reckless, partisan spending bill." He accused Democrats of fiscal "mismanagement." 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer walks to reporters outside the Senate chambers of the Capitol on Dec. 7, 2021, in Washington.  (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images / Getty Images)

No one thought McConnell would help Democrats with the debt ceiling again. 

And yet, as the latest debt ceiling deadline crept closer, McConnell again engaged with Schumer on a path forward. The Kentucky Republican boasted the U.S. wouldn’t default this time and "never has." 

Eventually, McConnell forged a pact with Schumer and others. Again, no Republicans would actually vote yes to pass the debt ceiling increase. Democrats would do all of that. But McConnell and other Republicans would clear the way – procedurally – so Democrats could pass the bill with their own majority. 

One might suggest that Schumer knew McConnell – the ultimate institutionalist – would be willing to craft some sort of agreement that saved face for both sides. 

McConnell marketed this to fellow Republicans as a one-time shot. Democrats only. And, Democrats would be on the hook for hiking the debt ceiling. Moreover, the plan would force the Democrats to concoct a specific number to which they wanted to raise the debt ceiling. No more "suspensions" of the debt limit for a fixed period of time. The GOP demanded Democrats be on the hook for "X" dollars of debt. Republicans would then weaponize that figure and the roll call votes Democratic senators took to extend the debt ceiling. The GOP could say this was all the Democrats’ doing. 

Not all Republicans were on board with this tactic by McConnell. Some believe he caved – even though McConnell got Democrats to do most of what he wanted them to do. 

Former President Trump also scorched McConnell in a statement. 

"Mitch McConnell is giving the Democrats victory on everything. What is wrong with this Broken Old Crow?" declared Mr. Trump. " When will they vote him out of Leadership? He didn’t have the guts to play the Debt Ceiling card." 

President Donald Trump walks on the south lawn of the White House on Oct. 20, 2020. in Washington.  (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images / Getty Images)

Many Republicans advocated Democrats use the special budget reconciliation process to lift the debt ceiling. That’s the one thing Democrats didn’t want to do. Use of budget reconciliation would prompt what’s called a "vote-a-rama" in the Senate. That’s where GOPers could develop all sorts of nettlesome amendments and force Democrats to take a stand on them. 

Schumer wanted to avoid that option like the plague. 

Not that anyone can really avoid the plague anymore. But Schumer ultimately shielded Democrats from the vote-a-rama affliction. 

"Our concern all along has been doing this through a process, that is we were worried about process that would be convoluted, lengthy and risky," said Schumer. "It looks like the Republicans will help us facilitate that. So we feel very good about where we're headed on debt ceiling. It's not done until it's done. But the idea of letting Democrats carry ourselves is what we've always (requested)." 

McConnell defended his deal making with Schumer. 

"I think it is also in the best interest of Republicans," said McConnell on the debt limit. 

But some Republicans argued McConnell reversed course on the debt ceiling twice. He dug in deep. Then changed course. 

"What do you say when you do those two red lines and now help indirectly raise the debt ceiling?" asked yours truly of McConnell at a press conference. 

"The red line is intact," replied McConnell. "There are always differences of opinion among Republicans about how to handle a delicate issue like the debt ceiling." 

In other words, McConnell contends he never crossed a red line. He did exactly what he said was going to do. And Republicans would never actually cast a vote to assist raising the debt ceiling. The GOP assist to break the filibuster would be two steps removed from the actual debt ceiling roll call vote. 

It’s this sort of stuff which drives people outside of Washington crazy. 

Here’s how this works: 

The House and Senate both approved a "framework" bill that would allow the Senate – once – to approve a debt ceiling increase with a 51-vote margin and not face a filibuster. They stapled the debt limit framework provisions onto a bill to avert Medicare cuts. But the framework bill would face the usual threat of a filibuster. That’s where the Republican aid was needed. 


Once signed into law, the framework/Medicare bill would allow Congress to up the debt ceiling – with a simple majority via a separate bill. 

Complicated, right? 

When questioning Schumer and McConnell about this complex "two-step," NBC’s Garrett Haake described it as a "bank shot." CNN’s Manu Raju called it "gymnastics." Yours truly went with "parliamentary arpeggio." 

Basketball. Floor exercise. And harp music.  


So, Republicans didn’t directly help raise the debt ceiling. Or did they? 

It depends on whom you ask. 

But it’s so complicated, it’s a little hard to explain.