Talking Points

The method to Mitch McConnell's debt ceiling madness

There is a method to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's madness on the debt ceiling. If Democrats want to increase the statutory limit on the federal government's borrowing authority — and they will have to just to fund existing spending commitments, to say nothing of their ambitious future plans — the Kentucky Republican has put them on notice that they will need to do so without GOP support.

"They have the House, the Senate, and the presidency. It's their obligation to govern," McConnell said. "And, you know, the essence of governing is to raise the debt ceiling to cover the debt."

McConnell wants the Democrats to own their spending politically, as they prepare to defend razor-thin congressional majorities in next year's midterm elections. And these hard-ball tactics worked in the last Democratic administration, giving Republicans really their only spending concessions from then-President Obama when he agreed to a deal involving budget sequestration — the threat of large across-the-board cuts if certain spending targets were exceeded — in exchange for raising the debt ceiling in 2011.

But that was not without some political cost. Using a potential government default as leverage in a policy dispute made fiscal responsibility look irresponsible. And during the Tea Party era, it was possible to argue that the GOP's big-spending ways under George W. Bush were anomalous. After it resumed under Donald Trump, there is a clear pattern of Republicans indulging in spending and debt when in power only to get religion when Democrats win elections.

Also by the time the debt ceiling fight had happened under Obama, Democrats had already passed two of their top big-ticket spending items: the 2009 stimulus package and ObamaCare. This battle will play out while infrastructure and the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill are still on the table.

Still, McConnell is no fool when it comes to legislative tactics. He knows the Democrats' razor-thin majorities have empowered the surviving moderates and putting them into direct conflict with emboldened progressives. McConnell can hope to heighten the Democrats' internal contradictions and force Biden to manage them, juggling competing priorities and tumbling poll numbers.

After all, Republicans still won the Senate the election after the "fiscal cliff" mess of 2012-13. This time around, Democrats have fewer seats to spare.