Democrats Look to McConnell, the Man They Called ‘Grim Reaper,’ for Debt Help

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(Bloomberg) -- Democrats say they need Mitch McConnell to prevent a market-upending debt default, viewing the Senate Republican leader they once derided as the “grim reaper” as more of a pragmatist and deal-maker than newly empowered House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

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Such is the jittery political climate in Washington, with the Treasury Department preparing its latest estimate on when the US could find itself in a financial crisis if no accord is reached.

That date could arrive as early as June.

Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland cited McConnell’s crucial role during the 2011 debt ceiling talks with the Obama administration — the worst such standoff to date — in saying that the leader must help broker a compromise.

“What we are all waiting for is Mitch McConnell, someone who cares about the US economy getting in the room,” said New Hampshire Representative Annie Kuster, a moderate Democrat.

A master tactician and a tough partisan, McConnell earned his ghoulish nickname for his use of the Senate filibuster to block key Democratic priorities from campaign finance reform to gun control.

But he has a knack for eleventh-hour deals, including those he cut with Biden, both during his vice presidency and since he entered the Oval Office himself.

This time, McConnell appears content to sit on the sidelines — at least for now — and let House Republicans try to forge an agreement with President Joe Biden.

“The American people expect the president and the speaker to get together and work this out,” McConnell said Wednesday as McCarthy amassed the House votes needed to pass his Republican-only debt proposal that would cut $4.8 trillion in domestic spending as the price for agreeing to raise the debt ceiling.

The Kentucky Republican’s comments haven’t stopped Democrats from opining about the good old days when things could be worked out between the parties, with McConnell as a reliable and canny dealmaker.

“Mitch McConnell has brokered deadlocks before,” said Senate Budget Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse. “At the end of the day I think the bill will come from the Senate. I just don’t think the conditions for that have yet been set.”

Deal-Maker Sidelined

A senior GOP aide said McConnell isn’t going to come riding to the rescue, especially now that McCarthy has gotten his debt legislation through the House.

McCarthy echoed that sentiment in a Thursday interview with Bloomberg Television’s “Balance of Power.”

“They support our plan, they’re telling Schumer, why don’t you produce something?” McCarthy said of McConnell and his lieutenants and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “They’re telling the president, why don’t you sit down and negotiate?”

A key problem for McConnell — aside from the being in the minority — is that he’s simply not liked by many ultra-conservative House Republicans. Those lawmakers have the power to oust McCarthy — who was elected in January on the 15th round after much arm twisting — with a no-confidence motion.

“Any deal he cuts no matter how substantively fantastic it might be, there is a cohort of House Republicans whose vision of themselves is they’re better at this than Mitch McConnell,” said Rohit Kumar, McConnell’s chief negotiator in the 2011 crisis. “It’s almost automatically going to be unpalatable to some House Republicans and it’s a risk of destabilizing the House speaker.”

The lack of trust in McConnell is evident in the House. Ultra-conservative Republican Ralph Norman of South Carolina said he fears McConnell will try to undercut his party in that chamber.

“I think he is going to try. That’s what he has done in the past,” said Norman, adding that conservatives would contest such an effort.

The votes of Norman and other conservatives could bring a motion to oust McCarthy as speaker if he goes along with any McConnell-authored compromise.

McConnell Record

In October 2021, despite withering denunciations from former President Donald Trump, McConnell mustered enough GOP backing to push a short-term $480 billion debt limit increase past a filibuster on a 61-38 vote. No Republicans voted for it when it then passed with 50 Democratic votes.

Two months later, with another increase needed, McConnell and Schumer negotiated a one-time process to raise the borrowing limit by a simple majority without any filibuster. That allowed a $2.5 trillion increase — which extended the government’s borrowing authority into this year — to pass on a 50-49 party-line vote.

Yet even within the Senate, McConnell is weaker than he once was as restive conservatives chafe at his authority.

After Republicans failed to retake the Senate last fall, McConnell was challenged for the leadership post by Rick Scott of Florida, who ultimately got 10 votes — a clear demonstration that McConnell’s unquestioned power had eroded.

Scott and many of his supporters went on to sharply criticize a broad $1.7 trillion annual government funding bill that McConnell negotiated with Schumer in December and they’re promising to band together for deep spending cuts in any debt-limit deal this year.

McCarthy told reporters he has no concerns Republicans in the Senate will try to water down the bill.

“They are very excited,” he said.

--With assistance from Mike Dorning.

(Adds possibility of motion against McCarthy in 19th paragraph. Previous versions corrected Ralph Norman’s state and an error in the Senate minority leader’s name.)

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