Since August, Republicans have definitively rejected aiding Democrats in raising the debt ceiling. In a petition signed by forty-six Senate Republicans, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) explained that Republicans would not aid Democrats in their “unprecedented deficit spending spree,” and challenged the party to raise the debt limit on their own.
In a letter to President Joe Biden, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a signatory of the petition, defended he and other Republicans’ refusal to help Democrats to raise the debt limit, blasting congressional Democratic leadership for their partisanship.
McConnell claimed that “Democrats inherited bipartisan trends from COVID relief to appropriations but have chosen to govern alone.”Democrats have broken that spirit, McConnell wrote, with “another staggering taxing and spending spree without any Republican input or support.”
He added, “Bipartisanship is not a light switch that Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer may flip on to borrow money and flip off to spend it.”
“For two and a half months, we have simply warned that since your party wishes to govern alone, it must handle the debt limit alone as well,” wrote McConnell, demanding that Democrats use the often partisan reconciliation process.
During a Sept. 27 vote on a bill that included provisions to increase the debt ceiling, Republicans backed up their promises with action and filibustered the bill by denying it the 60 votes needed to open debate.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters Wednesday that he saw no way for the bill to pass without going through the reconciliation process.
But this is a course of action Democrats have been hesitant to take. At the beginning of September, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rejected proposals to include the debt ceiling in the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill. After Republicans’ Sept. 27 vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the option “a non-starter.”
Now, as the mid-October deadline to raise the debt ceiling draws closer, Democrats are scrambling for a solution to the problem as Republicans re-up their challenge, threatening to filibuster any bill that is not advanced with the reconciliation process.
Democrats Consider the ‘Nuclear Option’ to Avoid Filibuster
One proposed solution to the problem of continued Republican resistance has been the so-called “nuclear option,” a parliamentary procedure that allows the Senate’s rules to be changed by a simple majority.
Under Senate rules, most types of legislation must be approved by 60 members of the upper chamber to advance to open debate, a rule which allows the minority party to still wield considerable influence. However, with the nuclear option, the majority can vote to allow certain types of legislation to be advanced to debate by a simple majority, avoiding the filibuster altogether.
Republicans wielded this political hammer at the end of 2020 when they changed the Senate’s rules to advance the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Now, Democrats are considering doing the same with debt ceiling legislation.
Sen. Ed Merkley (D-Ore.) noted a mood change among Democrats about changing the filibuster. “There’s a lot more conversation because … Mitch McConnell is threatening to blow up the economy by standing in the way of an ordinary process of holding a vote,” he said.
Merkley said that even his opinions have changed on it. “My argument all along has been that the Senate is a better place if the minority can slow things down,” he said. But the minority party blocking the political process altogether is another matter entirely, he noted.
The Oregon Democrat concluded: “No tyranny of the majority. And no tyranny of the minority. Right now we have a tyranny of the minority, and our founders warned absolutely we were just not to let that happen.”
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), when asked about the option by reporters, replied that “all options oughta be on the table,” including the nuclear option. Warner has often been considered a moderate, even leading negotiations between the White House and other moderate senators over the $3.5 trillion budget bill.
“To my mind, this isn’t a debate about policy,” Warner explained. “The ramifications of failing to raise the debt ceiling,” Warner trailed off, speaking about the dangers to the U.S. credit rating.
“With Afghanistan, with China’s jets flying around Taiwan, the idea that we are going to self-inflict a major economic wound?” asked Warner.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was noncommittal but indicated his own openness to reforming the filibuster.
The senator deferred to Schumer’s judgment on the appropriate course of action, but suggested that he would be open to the use of the nuclear option: “my bottom line is this has to get done.”
Several other Democrats agreed, and this option is by far the most popular among the majority party, but some other options have been floated as well.
Warner Calls $1 Trillion Coin Idea ‘Kooky,’ But Accepts It as Last Resort
This debt ceiling crisis has renewed an option originally put forward in 2011 under President Barack Obama: a $1 trillion platinum coin produced by the U.S. mint.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has dismissed the idea, calling it a “gimmick.” In a CNBC interview, Yellen explained, “I’m opposed to it, and I don’t think we should take it seriously.”
Despite her opposition, the move would be legal. A now decades-old law allows the executive branch to authorize the minting of coins with no restrictions on the denomination, so long as they are made of platinum.
And the idea has gained some traction in the House of Representatives among progressives. Pelosi said at a Sept. 28 press conference that the idea had been raised by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) during a caucus meeting.
Another House progressive, Rep. Rashida Tlaib also signaled her support for the proposal, writing “#MintTheCoin” in a tweet.
However, Senate Democrats have taken the idea less seriously. But on Wednesday, Warner suggested that he would be open to the move as a last resort.
“What about the trillion-dollar coin? Is that even viable or is that just too kooky to contemplate?” a reporter asked the Virginia Democrat.
Warner replied noncommittally that “The only thing kookier would be a politically inflicted default.”
Despite the Treasury Secretary’s resistance to the move, President Joe Biden could ask her to go ahead with the coin, which could extend the debt ceiling deadline if the situation is not resolved before the United States would default.
Executive Branch Solutions Still On the Table
During a press conference, Pelosi suggested another solution to the problem: the executive branch, under the authority of the president.
“When the Republicans refuse to cooperate on this, they are jeopardizing the full faith and credit of the United States of America, which is guaranteed in the Constitution,” she said.
Here, Pelosi is referencing the so-called “public debt clause” of the 14th amendment, which reads, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” Though the clause was a post-Civil War amendment meant to deal with immediate issues at the time, some have interpreted the clause as giving the president unilateral authority to raise the debt ceiling.
President Bill Clinton, discussing a similar standoff over the debt ceiling in the mid-90s, interpreted this cause to give the president authority to raise the debt limit on his own authority if Congress fails to do so. Clinton said he would have used the clause “without hesitation, and force the courts to stop me.” But many, including President Barack Obama, have been unconvinced of the constitutionality of this move.
Though it is unclear how such an executive action would work, Pelosi indicated that Democrats were considering it. Tuesday, Warner indicated that the option was still a live one for the majority party.
A reporter asked Warner if the 14th amendment could be used to allow the president to raise the debt limit unilaterally.
“The truth is I don’t know,” Warner admitted. “But if it appears in the text, I mean,” Warner trailed off. He said as well that the option was discussed in a Tuesday meeting, along with other potential constitutional solutions.
“It’s in the Constitution,” Warner said, echoing Pelosi’s earlier comments. He concluded, “But I don’t know.”