Mitch McConnell's Costly Misstep: Reid Calls Bluff on Debt-Ceiling Feint

The Senate minority leader is a known tactician, but in misjudging the Democratic hand he may have weakened his fiscal-cliff position.

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J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was for a vote to grant the president power to hike the debt limit before he was against it.

Within a matter of hours on Thursday, the Republican leader was furiously backpedaling from his own move to force a vote on President Obama's request for unlimited future borrowing authority. McConnell demanded such a vote in the morning, but by afternoon Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had called his counterpart's bluff and pressed for an up-or-down vote himself.

"I object," said McConnell.

It was a rare strategic misstep for a man often described as one of the Senate's most guiling tacticians. In a week of posturing and positioning on Capitol Hill, people on both sides of the aisle acknowledged that McConnell's failed maneuver cost the GOP some precious negotiating ground. The question was how much.

The debt ceiling is widely believed to be Republicans' strongest point of leverage in the ongoing fiscal-cliff negotiations. Although technically not part of the package of automatic spending cuts and tax hikes that will go into place on January 1, Congress is expected to need to approve new borrowing authority by late winter. President Obama wants to avoid a repeat of the protracted fight that brought the nation to the brink of default in the summer of 2011 and caused the country to lose its AAA-credit rating.

"I will not play that game," Obama said on Wednesday.

Many Republicans privately believe that even if they ultimately must fold on raising taxes on the wealthy, as the president has demanded, they could still wring spending and entitlement concessions out of the White House and congressional Democrats in a debt-ceiling fight.

Democrats insisted that McConnell's blunder on Thursday showed that the politics of the debt ceiling have shifted substantively since 2011, when Democratic politicians feared being tagged as profligate spenders in the wake of the Tea Party-dominated 2010 elections.

"He hasn't learned that this is not 2010 anymore. There's no hay to be made by playing politics with the debt limit. So Senator McConnell's usually very astute political radar was off today. And I would argue it's because they're sort of losing ground on the whole fiscal-cliff argument," Sen. Chuck Schumer gleefully told reporters on Thursday. After the 2011 fight, approval ratings for both congressional Republicans and the president plunged. A new Quinnipiac poll released on Thursday showed that the public now trusts Obama and Democrats more than congressional Republicans in negotiations to avoid the fiscal cliff -- by a 53 percent to 36 percent margin.

Reid suggested that Democrats weren't done pushing to grant the president unilateral authority to raise the borrowing limit. "I will continue to seek an agreement to hold an up-or-down vote on his proposal to avoid another debt-ceiling debacle," Reid said in a statement after the floor dustup.

He complained that Republicans were "not taking yes for an answer."

Republicans remained dubious that Reid, in fact, had sufficient support from Democrats to pass the president's debt-ceiling plan, but they weren't confident enough to risk a roll-call vote. Earlier in the week, McConnell had demanded a vote on the fiscal-cliff package floated by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Reid had declined to allow that vote. Ultimately, some Republicans took solace in the fact that House Speaker John Boehner has been the party's chief negotiator with the president and that he could glide past the Senate episode.

"I don't see it changing things substantively since Boehner can distance himself from this and still use the debt ceiling as leverage with the White House as the main GOP negotiator," a Senate Republican aide said.

It was Boehner's rabble-rousing conference, after all, that spearheaded the debt-limit fight 17 months ago. And many House conservatives are still itching for another round in that fiscal bout.

"We really we ought to have a protracted debate on the debt ceiling," Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., said earlier in the week. He acknowledged that he and fellow freshmen were pegged as "obstructionist" during the last showdown. But he said, "For the first time in 80 years, regardless of what party was in control, we had a protracted debate on the debt ceiling; I think that's something the American public would want to hear, would want to see."

Still, Democrats believe McConnell tipped his hand and played the GOP trump card too soon -- at least before winning some Democratic concessions.

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Shane Goldmacher and Elahe Izadi cover Congress for National Journal.

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