Mitch McConnell: His Solution to the Debt-Ceiling Crisis Makes No Sense

Mitch McConnell has a reputation for political cunning. But his proposal to solve the debt crisis is politically inept.

Clearly, I misjudged Mitch McConnell. I and a lot of other people. The rap on the GOP Senate leader is that while he is certainly in possession of a sharp political mind, he is only that: a political animal down to his socks, who cares nothing about policy (with the fragrant exception of the policy of hastening the day that corporations can make unlimited contributions) and thinks only about politics. A second rap, from liberals, is that he thinks of party before country. But lo and behold, while House leader Eric Cantor is tossing his usual bombs, McConnell actually puts a sensible, adult proposal on the table that clears a way out of the debt-ceiling mess—suggesting that President Obama raise the ceiling without a prior deal on deficit reduction. As his colleague John McCain used to say: Country first!

Well, sort of. Or Wall Street first. Or Republican Senate majority first. Hmmm. Now, wait a second ...

I understand what McConnell is doing, but two days later I still don’t understand how he thinks this helps him get where he’s trying to go, because the numbers just don’t add up. McConnell’s main goal is to become Senate majority leader. The GOP, of course, has a good shot at getting there in the 2012 elections, because the Democrats are defending about twice as many seats as Republicans are. More specifically, four red-state Democratic incumbents will be trying to hold seats that McConnell and the Republicans hope they can pick off. They are Jon Tester of Montana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. They are vulnerable to defeat to varying degrees.Beyond those four, there are three more Democrats from blue states, but not the deepest shades of blue. Bill Nelson of Florida and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are from states that could easily swing back to the red column, and they could face tough reelection fights. Amy Klobuchar represents a state, Minnesota, that is more likely to stay blue (yes, even if Tim Pawlenty or Michele Bachmann is the GOP nominee), and her poll numbers are solid, but she is a first-termer, so she’s never tested the reelection waters.

McConnell obviously wants to make Democrats cast a series of votes to raise the debt ceiling. Surely he is thinking in particular of the first four, the red-staters. But here’s the part I don’t get. Under the rule he proposes, if President Obama puts forward a certain list of possible budget cuts in exchange for raising the ceiling, a two-thirds vote in both houses would be required to block it. In other words, Democrats wouldn’t need 60 votes to break a filibuster to support an Obama plan to raise the limit, as they normally would. They wouldn’t even need 51. They’d need just 34! So all four red-state Democrats, and the other three, can spend the next year and a half voting against raising the debt limit under the McConnell scheme, inveighing thunderously against Washington’s louche ways. The only Democrats who need to vote to raise the limit are those not facing reelection, and a small number of those facing only token opposition. So this puts no one on the hot seat in a way that matters.

In fact, as David Dayen has pointed out on the American Prospect website, Democrats could conceivably finagle things such that nobody has to vote for it at all. “Under the right circumstances,” he writes, “Obama could let Congress go into recess while the resolution of disapproval is at his desk and not sign it, a maneuver known as a pocket veto. A pocket veto cannot be overridden.” Which is to say, there need be no vote, period.

This is the political genius at work? I can’t figure it out. Maybe McConnell has confused the rabid right-wing base, which regards a vote to raise the debt limit as being close to treason, with regular Americans, who vaguely oppose raising the limit but don’t really know the first thing about it and are probably pretty unlikely to cast their vote with that issue foremost in their minds.

Or maybe he got an earful from Wall Street and didn’t want to be the heavy in a default scenario, and this was the best scenario he could come up with. Or maybe ... he really is a changed man.