Hope Springs

Help Us Harry Reid, You’re Our Only Hope

It’s in the Senate’s hands now. If a few Republicans vote for Harry Reid’s debt measure, pressure will mount on John Boehner to tell the crazies to stuff it, says Michael Tomasky.

10.09.13 5:05 PM ET

And now we go back to the Senate. Harry Reid announced yesterday afternoon that he’s going to present a “clean” (no Obamacare measures, no anything else) debt-limit increase, to last through December 2014, to the upper house. The vote, or at least the first vote, will take place Thursday. And the questions are straightforward: One, will Mitch McConnell permit (or can he prevent) a filibuster by one or more of the extremists? Two, if there is a filibuster, are there six Republicans, just six, who would agree that helping send the U.S. government to its first-ever default is something they don’t want on their resumes or in their obituaries? If Senate Republicans can grow up in the next 48 hours, maybe they can make John Boehner grow up, too. That’s about the best hope we’ve got.

Here’s where we are. Monday, Salon reported that Reid had cooked up a plan to introduce legislation to change fundamentally the way Congress dealt with the question of the debt limit. I described it in a blog post yesterday, so I won’t do it again. But there’s another reason I won’t do it again: Reid dropped it. He and his aides, I’m told, decided to hold it in reserve as a possible future move, but for now, it complicated things. Reid decided he wants a simple bill, just a clean and straightforward debt-limit increase, in an attempt to get as many Senate Republicans as he can to agree to the simple proposition that the United States government shouldn’t default.

So. The two questions. On the first one, it may be the case that McConnell can’t prevent a filibuster. If Mike Lee or Rand Paul or Ted Cruz or someone else really wants to dig in, under the rules McConnell can’t stop it. But there are the rules, and then there are the real rules, the way the place really works. I can’t unravel the mysteries of the Senate Republican caucus for you. I can note that Lee and Jim DeMint did filibuster the 2011 debt-limit increase, the first-ever filibuster of a debt-limit vote. A bill was cobbled together then, the bill that ultimately led to the sequester, that got 76 votes. Even McConnell voted aye.

I say we have to assume there will be a filibuster. Always assume the worst with these people. You’ll rarely be let down.

Then the Democrats will be forced to get 60 votes. Assuming that the 52 Democrats and two independents who caucus with them vote for the bill, which at the moment seems a safe assumption, six Republicans would have to vote with them.

Again, I note the comparison to 2006, when Senator Obama voted against increasing the debt limit. The Democrats didn’t filibuster. They knew they were going to lose. If they’d filibustered, the right-wing noise machine would have gone blind in apoplectic convulsion. But the Democrats didn’t play with fire. The difference between what the Democrats did in 2006 and what the Republicans did in 2011, and are likely to do now, is the difference between sticking someone up with a feather and a Glock.

But I digress. The question is, who are these six? Do they exist? Mark Kirk of Illinois has said he’d back a clean increase. According to Business Insider, so have Thad Cochran and Lindsey Graham. Lisa Murkowski might be on board. Maybe John McCain. You know the list of the usual suspects as well as I do. Some Democrats are comfortable that they have the votes. But when I see Susan Collins, who certainly should be one of the six, say “I don’t have a problem” with attaching a debt-limit increase to various fiscal demands, I get a little nervous.

The hope on the Democratic side is to get more than six, and that a decisive vote for the clean increase would put pressure on Boehner to allow a vote on the bill, which would then pass with the same coalition that people have been saying a “clean CR” to reopen the government would pass in the House. It probably would. But this is the same Boehner who said yesterday afternoon that a clean debt-limit increase would constitute “unconditional surrender.” How do you pressure a person who thinks like that?

Boehner’s press briefing yesterday afternoon was so far removed from reality, so outside the realm of known fact, that watching him, I felt the way I used to feel in the early 1980s when some flak for Yuri Andropov stood before the cameras insisting that the stories about bread shortages in the Soviet Union were bourgeois propaganda. Alternate-reality lies from start to finish.

Contrary to what Boehner said, the debt limit has not been used “to carry significant policy changes” many times in recent history. The truth is this. Many times in recent history, the two parties had budget disagreements. They’d bicker, and then, once they settled on a compromise, they’d tack a debt-limit increase onto the final bill. These were just agreements by both parties to kind of “hide” the vote for a debt-limit increase; it was a vote no one really wanted to take, and wrapping it in an omnibus spending bill meant less attention was drawn to it. That is not using the debt-limit to force concessions. If anything it’s the precise opposite—using a budget bill to sneak through a debt-limit hike.

And that hashtag, #JustTalk? Orwell land. This tweet  from Judd Legum of Think Progress says it more clearly and pithily than I can:

Two weeks ago, on the Senate’s “clean” CR that was passed in hopes of avoiding a government shutdown, not a single Republican voted aye. This, after two dozen of them said they were against Ted Cruz and his defunding Obamacare crusade. Yet, as I pointed out at the time, they in essence voted with him. And remember: That CR funded the government at the level Republicans demanded! The Democrats gave up on $70 billion in the hopes of getting some GOP votes, and because Boehner had promised Reid that he would bring a clean CR to the House floor if it was set at GOP-preferred funding levels. Boehner reneged.

So the bottom line is this. Over the next couple of days, the Senate Republicans are probably going to force the Senate Democrats to get six Republican votes...and then deny them those votes! But if somehow Reid’s clean debt-limit increase does pass, then Boehner may well regret using those words “unconditional surrender,” because it may well end up being what he has to do.