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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in October made it as clear as he could: he would help his Democratic colleagues keep the government’s credit card out of the shredder for nine more weeks, but come mid-December, they’d have to handle the sequel alone—and own it come next year when voters weigh-in with the midterms.
Well, eight weeks later, McConnell is keeping his word—in a strictly technical manner of speaking. No Republican is expected to vote for an increase to the nation’s borrowing power. But in a convoluted procedural backflip, McConnell and his Democratic colleague, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have concocted a novel backdoor to buy another barrel of red ink for U.S. bookkeepers to keep tally of the debt. McConnell is still going to make Democrats walk what he sees as a political plank, but Republicans will at least pitch in and hang the diving board over the side of the S.S. Debt Indifference.
If all of this seems like something only procedural nerds understand, you’re right. But for anyone with a retirement account, investments or a government income like a paycheck, pension or Social Security payment, this matters. The national AmEx is expected to hit its critical level on Dec. 15 and the Treasury Department is warning if Congress doesn’t boost its credit limit, there is all but guaranteed to be a massive global economic crisis. One estimate predicts the loss of 6 million jobs and $15 trillion in wealth in the United States. Neither Wall Street nor foreign markets like to see the United States as a deadbeat borrower, especially when the alternative global economic giant is China.
The United States has never before defaulted on its debt. Even the most harrowing, white-knuckled political stand-offs over the debt ceiling have always dodged that outcome. Since 1960, lawmakers have inched the total higher a total of 78 times. Government shutdowns, while pricey and embarrassing, are nothing compared to what a default could bring. McConnell knows that. And he also knows politics.
For weeks, McConnell has been engaged in private meetings with Schumer, who has taken the lead in negotiations over the debt ceiling. (House Democrats are expected to stand solid with their eight-vote majority, so Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been more than happy to have Schumer handle the McConnell talks.) While no one would confuse the McConnell-Schumer relationship as warm, the leaders also recognized the impending doom should they fail to come up with a deal. And rather than loop his deputies into the plans, McConnell kept his counsel very close, only telling his top lieutenants of the compromise at a contentious lunch on Tuesday.
McConnell had his preferences but also his demands. At one point, negotiators discussed tying the debt ceiling vote to the must-pass defense bill, but the timeline was too tight for that vehicle to work. McConnell also would have prefered Democrats use a budget loophole of reconciliation—the trick Democrats are trying to use to pass President Joe Biden’s social spending bill—to pass a stand-alone hike, but that was a non-starter for Democrats who have already used it the extraordinary tool once before this year to pass the Democrats’ first pandemic-relief bill, the American Rescue Plan. Plus, as a student of Senate history, McConnell was aware that the trick has only been used for this means four times in history, most recently in 1997.
Instead, Democrats suggested carving out a one-time exception to pass the debt ceiling with a bare majority of votes and avoid the typical 60-vote threshold to end a speechifying filibuster. In exchange, the loophole would sunset next month and would allow no amendments beyond the debt ceiling itself. Democrats would go it alone and take the political hit, if Republicans would just let them.
So here’s what’s actually going to happen, assuming McConnell can rustle up the 10 Republicans to go along with his scheme as expected:
The House on Tuesday already moved ahead with a standing bill to undo cuts to Medicare that were set to kick-in on Jan. 1. Only one Republican, retiring Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, joined Democrats to support it. Absent Congress’ actions, the American Hospital Association warns that looming automatic cuts would mean a $54 billion hole in their budgets right as the pandemic hits another wave. Congress, as it’s done routinely, will merely wipe the scorecard clean when it comes to previous laws meant to reduce spending. When it comes to Medicare, paying for things as Congress goes is one of those things that sounds good until lawmakers actually have to do it.
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To this Medicare bill, House members tacked on a rule change allowing a one-time permission slip for lawmakers to raise the debt ceiling with a bare majority in the Senate. It requires Congress to name a specific number—and not a blank check to carry through a specific date—for the new borrowing power. Democrats are looking for a number that can carry them past the midterm elections, probably somewhere in the $2.5 trillion range and taking the total pile of IOUs to $30 trillion.
That work now heads to the Senate, where lawmakers as soon as today can approve the rule change. While Senators are salty that the House has any say in its rules, it was an expected piece of the compromise because, at least historically, debt ceiling legislation starts in the House. McConnell isn’t one to gamble with a headcount, so the fact he announced the deal presumes he has the votes in the Senate despite the grumbles over an encroaching House.
From there, the Senate will sketch out language that can clear 50 Democrats’ support and the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris to break the tie before sending it back to the House, where it faces a certain approval. Negotiators agreed to cap debate in the Senate to 10 hours, rather than the typically open-ended gabfest that can lead to a filibuster.
Not all Republicans are happy with McConnell’s deal. During a private luncheon on Tuesday, some made their displeasure plainly known. Others were openly grousing about it to reporters standing outside their meeting, unloading on McConnell for caving. To listen to Fox News the last two days—especially the primetime line-up—you’d have thought McConnell had taken Ronald Reagan’s name off D.C.’s airport and replaced it with Hillary Clinton’s. Ex-President Donald Trump also went after McConnell for the choice.
McConnell, the longest-serving Republican Leader in history, isn’t one to be flustered by such pushback. For his part, McConnell calmly explains that he’s giving Democrats total ownership over the new borrowing number, a figure he’s expected to use widely as he charts a path back to the majority in a 50-50 Senate. Polling already shows Republicans in a strong position to retake the majority, with echoes of Barack Obama’s first midterms in 2010 and Bill Clinton’s in 1994.
Voters since World War II have been primed to punish the party in control of Washington two years into a new President’s term. Unless outside events intervene; the most famous example is, of course, Sept. 11, 2001. But a global economic meltdown could be another contender. McConnell wants to avoid anything he can to change the trends of history and instead keep the focus on Democrats’ spending.
“The red line is intact,” McConnell told reports on Tuesday at the Capitol, referring to his October demand that only Democratic votes would increase the borrowing limit. “The red line is that you have a simple majority, party-line vote on the debt ceiling. That’s exactly where we will end up.”
McConnell kept his promise to his colleagues, and made it easier for Democrats to walk into his trap of being the party that borrows, even if it’s borrowing to cover spending racked up Republicans’ watch. A $2 trillion-plus jump to the national AmEx is both responsible and potentially politically toxic if Republicans can convince voters that the almost $8 trillion in debt racked up during Trump’s four years didn’t matter.
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