Why Mitch McConnell Caved Again

The Republican leader’s decision to fold—again—on the debt ceiling arises from a position of political strength, not weakness.

A photograph of Mitch McConnell
Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg / Getty

For the second time this fall, the Senate’s proud king of obstruction is caving to the Democrats.

Two months ago today, Mitch McConnell sent President Joe Biden a letter containing a warning so important that he repeated it three times in five paragraphs. The Senate Republican leader vowed that he would “not be a party to any future effort” to help Democrats lift the debt ceiling—a necessary step that Congress must take to avoid an economically damaging default. The two-page missive was the closest that the famously taciturn McConnell gets to firing off an angry tweet. He accused Senate Democrats of mismanagement, incompetence, and “childish behavior.” Their leadership was so feckless, he wrote, that McConnell had no choice but to rescue them from their own ineptitude and facilitate a temporary extension of federal borrowing authority. Never again, McConnell promised the president.

Yesterday, McConnell announced that, actually, he would once again be a party to exactly the same kind of effort. Republicans, he told reporters, would help Democrats raise the debt limit and avert a fiscal crisis. “I think this is in the best interest of the country,” McConnell said, “and I think it is in the best interest of Republicans.” To progressives blissfully uninitiated in the drudgery of congressional politics, McConnell’s fold might seem like cause for jubilation. The details of the GOP’s volte-face offered even more intrigue: To allow Democrats to raise the debt ceiling on their own with a simple majority vote, Republicans will agree to temporarily waive the Senate’s filibuster rules requiring 60 votes for passage. McConnell made clear that this would be a onetime exception, but he’s setting a precedent that raises tantalizing possibilities. If he was willing to cast off the filibuster for the debt ceiling, what other issues could Democrats force him to back down on? Might McConnell eventually relent on voting rights? On gun control?

Not likely. The Republican retreat from a debt-limit showdown was tactical, arising from a position of strength, not weakness. At the moment, Democrats are reeling. Biden’s approval rating is in the toilet; the GOP scored a major victory in last month’s elections in Virginia (and nearly an upset win in New Jersey). Democratic infighting has kept the president’s already-shrunken economic agenda stalled in the Senate. If Democrats are intent on hanging themselves before the midterms next year, McConnell has determined that his best move is to hand them a rope and get out of their way. “As he looks ahead to next year, he loves what he sees, and he doesn’t want to do anything to rock the boat,” Jim Manley, a former Democratic Senate aide and longtime McConnell observer, told me. “He wants to keep the focus on the Dem-on-Dem violence.”

A protracted fight over the debt ceiling would risk economic fallout, but it would also allow Biden to shift attention away from his own struggles and back to the GOP, reminding voters about the party’s penchant for obstruction. McConnell is pursuing the same strategy by eschewing the creation of a detailed policy platform for 2022. He doesn’t want a Newt Gingrich–style “Contract With America” that Democrats could attack, preferring to keep the midterm campaign a referendum on Biden and his party.

The deal McConnell brokered with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is structured so that Republicans can allow Democrats to raise the debt ceiling without voting for it themselves—“with as few fingerprints as possible,” as Manley put it. The actual mechanism, approved by the House last night, is buried so deeply in congressional arcana that a constituent demanding an explanation for the vote would end up so bored and confused that they’d regret they even asked.

McConnell’s handling of the debt limit has been far from flawless. He obtained no more concessions from Democrats than he could have extracted two months ago, when he made a threat that looks silly in hindsight. Nor does he have anything close to his entire caucus behind him. Egged on by former President Donald Trump—once again a dedicated McConnell foe—conservatives believe he’s letting Democrats off too easy. They want McConnell to do what he had previously promised, by forcing Democrats to use the complicated Senate procedure known as reconciliation to raise the debt limit entirely without GOP assistance. That would have required Democrats to take potentially dozens more difficult floor votes and use time they would rather spend confirming Biden nominees and working to pass the president’s Build Back Better Act.

McConnell has cultivated a reputation over the years as being Machiavellian; his then-risky move to block President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court is often cited as evidence of his strategic wizardry. This is not one of those maneuvers. McConnell will struggle to get enough Republicans to help pass his plan in the Senate, and although it is surely good for the short-term economic stability of the country, its wisdom as a purely political tactic isn’t guaranteed. Democrats will gladly accept McConnell’s surrender on the debt ceiling, but it’s not much cause for celebration, because the broader victory—a return to the Senate majority—might yet be his.