A lot of Republicans griped last week that President Trump’s deal with Democrats to suspend the debt ceiling and fund the government through December 8 gave Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi everything they wanted while setting up a big fiscal cliff showdown in early December, much to the Democrats’ advantage. But Sen. Mitch McConnell isn’t buying that line of analysis. “Let’s put it this way. The deal is not quite as good as my counterpart thought it was,” McConnell told The New York Times Monday.
What the critics have failed to realize, McConnell said, was that the agreement that was passed ensures that the Treasury Department can use “extraordinary measures” to keep paying the country’s bills after December 8, and that those measures will push any potential debt crisis into next year. McConnell took credit for the small but potentially important victory in the Times, saying that he intentionally wrote the bill to allow the use of extraordinary measures: “One of the advantages of being the majority leader is you control the paper.”
The use of extraordinary measures is actually quite ordinary, with the Treasury employing them for much of 2017, starting in March, when the last debt ceiling suspension ran out. (You can read more about the use of extraordinary measures on the Treasury Department’s website.)
The result — and the reason McConnell is so sanguine about the situation — is the Democrats will have less leverage in December as Congress debates funding the government for 2018. Unable to combine the threat of a debt ceiling-driven default with the possibility of a government shutdown, Democrats may be less likely to get their way on other key issues, such as health care reform and changes to the immigration system.
McConnell is right about the debt ceiling. Last week, Shai Akabas of the Bipartisan Policy Center, referring to the “X Date” when the Treasury could bump into the debt ceiling, tweeted: “Too early to make a formal estimate, but BPC's back of the envelope calculations have next debt limit ‘X Date’ in March 2018.” And Bloomberg’s Erik Wesson tweeted today: “overall McConnell correct.”
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Schumer warned that McConnell’s strategy would hurt the GOP by forcing two contentious votes. "If they used extraordinary measures to extend the debt ceiling,” Schumer said, “there would be two cliffs instead of one."
And McConnell will need the votes of at least eight Senate Democrats to pass both a government spending bill and a debt ceiling increase.