Editorial: Autumn fights

Year-end pileups of crucial legislation and the brinkmanship that goes with them are normal behaviour for Congress. This autumn, lawmakers are barrelling toward battles that are striking for the risks they pose to both parties and their leaders.

Though few doubt that Congress will again extend the government’s borrowing authority when it expires in December, no one seems certain of how they’ll do it . Democrats don’t have the votes yet to enact President Joe Biden’s top priorities into law. And Republicans are nervous that Democrats may weaken the filibuster rule that lets the Senate’s minority party derail legislation. Miscalculate and there could be a calamitous federal default, a collapse of Biden’s domestic agenda and, for good measure, a damaging government shutdown.

Stir in lawmakers whose nerves are already frayed and are looking to tee up issues for next year’s mid-term elections, and it’s a recipe for confrontations that could damage each party if leaders aren’t careful. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blinked last week. And then he said he wouldn’t blink again.

McConnell said since summer that Republicans wouldn’t supply the votes majority Democrats needed to extend the federal debt limit. But Thursday night, 11 Republicans including McConnell joined Democrats in narrowly overcoming a procedural hurdle so the Senate could subsequently approve 480 billion in fresh borrowing. The vote staved off until December a first-ever federal default that could disrupt the global economy, delay government checks to Social Security recipients and others and unleash voters’ wrath on lawmakers. But the partisan dispute will resume in two months. Republicans want Democrats to raise the debt ceiling on their own to underscore their argument that Biden’s multitrillion-dollar social and environment agenda is unaffordable.

Democrats want Republicans to put their imprint on the borrowing limit increase, arguing that the 28 trillion national debt is for unpaid bills already incurred, including 7 trillion under former President Donald Trump. By enabling a two-month reprieve on the fight, McConnell angered Republicans who wanted a tougher stance against Democrats including Trump, still an intimidating force in the GOP. Even usual McConnell ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called it complete capitulation. Demonstrating the political sensitivities in play, eight of the 11 Republicans who Thursday helped Democrats approve the debt limit increase are either retiring or not seeking reelection until 2024 or later.

Friday night, McConnell said he will not provide such assistance again, citing grave concerns over Democrats’ huge domestic bill and hysterics by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. More on that later. Come December, something has to give. But it’s unclear how that will happen, and the stakes will be high for leaders to ensure a partisan stare down doesn’t tumble out of control.


NT Bureau