Republicans will not vote to increase the federal borrowing limit, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a new interview, setting the stage for a huge battle in Congress as it stares at a deadline to avoid a debt default.
McConnell's threat prompted outrage from top Democrats, warning the GOP leader is playing a dangerous game that could tank the US economy. Republicans argue that it's not uncommon for the majority party to shoulder the burden for increasing the debt limit, a politically toxic vote for lawmakers up for reelection.
"I can't imagine there will be a single Republican voting to raise the debt ceiling after what we've been experiencing," McConnell said in an interview with Punchbowl News published Wednesday.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer blasted McConnell in remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday morning, calling them "shameless, cynical and totally political."
"This debt is Trump debt," Schumer added. "It's Covid debt. Democrats joined three times during the Trump administration to do the responsible thing and the bottom line is that Leader McConnell should not be playing political games with the full faith and credit of the United States. Americans pay their debts."
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois and Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon also criticized McConnell's comments on Wednesday.
"Mitch McConnell is playing Russian Roulette with this economy," Durbin said. "It is totally irresponsible, underline irresponsible."
Wyden added, "I want it understood as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I am not going to let anybody take our economy hostage."
Options for the debt ceiling
While Congress is facing an August deadline for the debt ceiling, the Treasury Department has several methods available to delay the effects of the debt ceiling limit until the fall, as the fiscal year ends on September 30.
The Congressional Budget Office released guidance Wednesday that if the Treasury Department takes "extraordinary measures," Congress will likely have until October or November before lawmakers would absolutely have to take action to prevent the country from going into default.
That gives Democrats some time to figure out their next steps. Democrats could include the debt ceiling increase in their budget reconciliation bill currently being debated, multiple sources tell CNN.
Senate Democrats could try to advance a vote to raise the debt ceiling along straight party lines before the August recess under the chamber's rules, according to two Senate sources with knowledge of the process.
That's because they could split up the reconciliation package — one to deal with the debt ceiling and another to pass the larger $3.5 trillion proposal — something that would be allowed under the 1974 budget law.
Congress would first have to pass a budget resolution before it could pass a reconciliation package along straight party lines. Democrats plan to vote on the budget resolution this month.
Democratic leaders have not said if they would seek to split up the reconciliation bill — or do it all in one package.
But the more likely scenario is that Democrats could tie the debt ceiling to a must-pass funding bill at the end of September, which would force Republicans to decide if they'd want to vote to default and shut down the government at the same time.
If Democrats did include the debt ceiling increase in reconciliation, lawmakers would need to choose what the new borrowing limit should be in the legislation given the special budget rules.
What this could mean politically for Democrats
The issue is seen as politically treacherous but critical in order to avoid a debt default because Republicans will undoubtedly use this as a talking point ahead of the 2022 midterms as they try to take back the majority in both chambers of Congress. On Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, is holding a news conference on what he's describing as "Democrats' reckless tax and spending spree."
Republicans, however, voted to approve increases in the debt ceiling under former President Donald Trump, and McConnell did not mention in the Punchbowl interview that under his own leadership of the Senate last year, members approved an additional $1.4 trillion in spending to fight the coronavirus and fund the federal government.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said last month that unless Congress acts, America could exhaust its ability to borrow this summer, even after the federal government takes steps to buy extra time.
House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, said last month he wants to move "sooner rather than later" to raise the national debt ceiling.
"I think raising the debt ceiling sooner rather than later is a good idea," Neal said, adding that the length of the extension would be "subject to negotiation."
This story and headline been updated with additional developments Wednesday.
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