Democrats to Swerve in Game of Debt Chicken

This is no way to run a railroad.

A little over a week ago, I noted that the “Republicans [were] Playing Chicken with Debt Ceiling. Again.” Well, the game is about to take place. Jim Tankersley of NYT reports “America’s Need to Pay Its Bills Has Spawned a Political Game” and warns “the odds are growing that the U.S. could default.”

For nearly two decades, lawmakers in Washington have waged an escalating display of brinkmanship over the federal government’s ability to borrow money to pay its bills. They have forced administrations of both parties to take evasive actions, pushing the nation dangerously close to economic calamity. But they have never actually tipped the United States into default.

The dance is repeating this fall, but this time the dynamics are different — and the threat of default is greater than ever.

Republicans in Congress have refused to help raise the nation’s debt limit, even though the need to borrow stems from the bipartisan practice of running large budget deficits. Republicans agree the U.S. must pay its bills, but on Monday they are expected to block a measure in the Senate that would enable the government to do so. Democrats, insistent that Republicans help pay for past decisions to boost spending and cut taxes, have so far refused to use a special process to raise the limit on their own.

Observers inside and outside Washington are worried neither side will budge in time, roiling financial markets and capsizing the economy’s nascent recovery from the pandemic downturn.

While it decidedly takes two to tango, it’s rather disingenuous to pretend the two parties are equally at fault. Republicans have, by virtue of high spending combined with recurring tax cuts when if power, contributed at least as much to the debt crisis as Democrats and yet are refusing to take any responsibility for raising the debt limit. Indeed, for those who read far enough into the piece, Tankersley concedes as much:

Republicans say they will not supply any votes to lift the debt cap, despite having run up trillions in new debt to pay for the 2017 tax cuts, additional government spending and pandemic aid during the Trump administration. Democrats, in contrast, helped President Donald J. Trump increase borrowing in 2017 and 2019.

“If they want to tax, borrow, and spend historic sums of money without our input,” Mr. McConnell said on the Senate floor this week, “they will have to raise the debt limit without our help.”

Thus far, Mr. Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress have declined to do so, even though employing that process would end the threat of default.

So, yes, Democrats could simply pass the debt increase via reconciliation but it’s exasperating—to say the least—that Republicans continue to play this silly game with the nation’s credit rating. But, Axios‘ Alayna Treene reports, they’re likely to be rewarded.

The Senate will hold a futile vote Monday night — just 72 hours before a potential shutdown — on a House-passed bill to fund the government through Dec. 3 and raise the debt limit.

Why it matters: The bill is going to fail. Period. But then comes Plan B: A “clean” continuing resolution — stripped of language about raising the debt limit — that Democrats spent the past week preparing, Axios is told.

Absent passing a short-term funding bill, federal agencies will close down on Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) say that’s not an option, so they’ll get this done.
That means Democrats, namely leadership, will likely have to do what they’ve spent the last month vowing they wouldn’t: attach legislation that would increase the debt ceiling to their partisan reconciliation package.

Of course they will. Ultimately, they have the White House and a (slim) majority in both Houses of Congress. To the extent voters are even paying attention, they’d otherwise get the lion’s share of the blame even though it was a problem of the Republicans’ making. But the childishness of all of this is really something to watch.

FILED UNDER: Congress, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Scott says:

    Democrats always lose at this game because they refuse to have message discipline. This is easy. Democrats, in unison, just have to say and repeat:

    “Republicans have to raise the debt ceiling because of the $8T in new debt incurred during the Trump/McConnell Administration”

    And then stop talking.

    No caveats. No nuances. Nothing. Pound it over and over.

    But they won’t.

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  2. @Scott: Honest question: what do you think that would do? Who do you think it would move and how?

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  3. JohnSF says:

    Am I missing something here? (Genuine puzzled Brit question)
    If the Democrats can lift the ceiling via reconciliation, what’s the problem?

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  4. Beth says:

    @JohnSF:

    I believe it has something to do with the rules of the reconciliation process. Like if they use it for the debt ceiling, then they can’t for everything else. If leadership tries to pack everything else in with the debt limit it will fail because of Manchin.

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  5. Michael Cain says:

    Am I missing something here? (Genuine puzzled Brit question)
    If the Democrats can lift the ceiling via reconciliation, what’s the problem?

    It’s more complicated than that. If they put the debt limit in its own bill, to be handled under reconciliation rules, then debt limit changes have to be pulled from the $3.5T budget bill. That might cost a few votes on the budget bill — of the “Well, I didn’t like everything about the giant budget bill, but in the end I voted for it because we had to increase the debt limit” variety.

    As our hosts here rightly point out regularly, we ought not to have to be constantly jury rigging things in order to run the government.

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  6. MarkedMan says:

    @Michael Cain:

    we ought not to have to be constantly jury rigging things in order to run the government.

    Honestly, though, that’s the nature of negotiations. If a negotiation is easy it means that me or more parties probably could have gotten more out of it.

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  7. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Annnnnnnnd there’s the rub.

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  8. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Cain: No, we shouldn’t, but we’d need to stop electing Republicans at least in the short term to move away from the problem.

    And our Congress critter isn’t Trumpy enough, I guess, so we need a different Republican, but he’ll solve the problem…
    https://joekentforcongress.com/
    or, maybe not. But in a time of crisis, any change is good, right?

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  9. Stormy Dragon says:

    @JohnSF:

    If the Democrats can lift the ceiling via reconciliation, what’s the problem?

    Reconciliation can only be used to raise the debt limit, not suspend it. Republicans want to force it to be done during a reconciliation bill with only Democratic votes so that next year they can run ads about how the Democrats raised the debt $X dollars.

    Double irony will be that since the Republicans themselves didn’t raise the debt limit during the Trump presidency, most of the $X will be to pay for Trump’s tax cuts

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  10. Scott says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: In congress, probably no one. But this is how things are viewed by the public. It’s like the argument over the $3.5T reconciliation bill. Everybody keeps talking about the cost but not one word about offsetting revenues. Public relations malpractice. The 2017 Tax cut bill cost (actually adding to the deficit) $2.3T which probably nets out more than this reconciliation bill. But you won’t hear anyone talk about that in straight forward terms (meaning one liners) that will get to the public.

    You all keep thinking that a rational conversation will persuade folks. Once upon a time that may have been true but politics is not that way anymore.

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  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: And apparently, not only are taxes too high, but China is also poised to take over our economy and country(Maybe if they’ll take the Republicans with it…
    Nah, that won’t work either. 🙁 )

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  12. @Scott:

    But this is how things are viewed by the public.

    But that is my question: who in the public would be moved by your suggested strategy?

    Everybody keeps talking about the cost but not one word about offsetting revenues. Public relations malpractice. The 2017 Tax cut bill cost (actually adding to the deficit) $2.3T which probably nets out more than this reconciliation bill.

    I seems to me that all of that is discussed all the time and it has little impact.

    But you won’t hear anyone talk about that in straight forward terms (meaning one liners) that will get to the public.

    I think it is a myth that one liners somehow move mountains.

    I would note that the problem for Dems is not, IMHO, the lack of communication, it is that the deck is stacked against them in terms of proactive action. The Reps aren’t winning this current debate because they have better one-liners. They are winning because all they have to do to win is to do nothing. That puts them in a more favorable position, yes?

    You all keep thinking that a rational conversation will persuade folks. Once upon a time that may have been true but politics is not that way anymore.

    That is not what prompted my question.

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  13. @Scott: Put another way: to change public opinion enough to affect the vote in the Congress requires pressure on those members who are voting against the measure (i.e., Republican voters, and to some degree Manchin and Sinema voters).

    How pursuable do you think those voters are to some Dem one-liners?

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  14. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    One thing that’s not clear in all of this is how a debt ceiling breech would be implemented, since legally the president can’t default but they also can’t not obligate funds appropriate by congress.

    My strategy would be:
    1. Just monetize the debt. Let the Republicans try to take you to court to stop it
    2. If they succeed in that, then just cut all federal spending in areas that didn’t vote to increase the debt ceiling and again, let the Republicans take you to court to stop it
    3. If the courts have said you can’t monetize the debt and that you can’t not spend then money, then just issue the debt regardless of what the debt ceiling is

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  15. @Stormy Dragon: All of which is a strategy to create an awful lot of turmoil in the global economy. The markets would go nuts.

    And I am not sure how you do this:

    then just cut all federal spending in areas that didn’t vote to increase the debt ceiling and again, let the Republicans take you to court to stop it

    Further, I am not sure why that is a leverage against the Reps.

    BTW: which party would get the blame for all the chaos? (Hint: the party that has the WH and the most seats in both chambers).

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  16. @Stormy Dragon: BTW, is this basically the trillion dollar coin (or whatever he denomination is) plan?

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  17. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    If the Dems all vote to increase the debt ceiling and the Repubs filtbuster it, they’re first in line to get funding to their districts cut. See if McConnell is so hard core when suddenly no one in the whole state of Kentucky is getting SS, Medicare, VA benefits, military pay, etc.

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  18. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    BTW: which party would get the blame for all the chaos? (Hint: the party that has the WH and the most seats in both chambers).

    That assumes the chaos hits everyone equally. If the chaos is targeted at at Republican areas, then it doesn’t really change things (Kentucky isn’t voting for Biden anyways) and it also makes it irrelevant (even if they do blame Democrats, all Kentucky can do about it is vote out Republicans).

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  19. Scott says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I really think we are talking about two different things. One, the inside game of politics in Congress. Two, the longer term outside persuasion of voters.

    How pursuable do you think those voters are to some Dem one-liners?

    There’s a difference between one-liners and simple declarative words. Yes, those words repeated 100s of times do persuade voters. And those voters will pursuade politicians. A muddled mass of messages will not do that. Message discipline works.

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  20. Gustopher says:

    We should use the moment to ask the parliamentarian whether the debt limit can be filibustered, and then vote to overrule her.

    The Republicans are giving us some free must-pass-or-America-is-obviously-hurt ammunition to put pressure on Manchin and Sinema. Will they break? Maybe.

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  21. Michael Reynolds says:

    The Democrats lose these fights because Democrats care about government and the American people. Republicans don’t. You cannot win a hostage stand-off if you are the one person who gives a fuck.

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  22. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I would note that the problem for Dems is not, IMHO, the lack of communication, it is that the deck is stacked against them in terms of proactive action. The Reps aren’t winning this current debate because they have better one-liners. They are winning because all they have to do to win is to do nothing.

    Correct. Additionally, the deck is stacked against them also based on the structure of representation in the country (both the Senate and the construction of Congressional Districts–not to mention State Legislature districts).

    Then there is the fact that a not-insignificant amount of American’s seem to prefer gridlocked government (see, for example, all the folks who argue to maintain the fillibuster)

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  23. mattbernius says:

    @mattbernius:
    Sigh, lack of edit — my point is that not only is it easier for the Republicans to score wins in terms of action, but those little wins have a greater electoral impact because of all the structural rules that have been discussed.

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  24. al Ameda says:

    Dear Democrats,
    Here’s your message:
    “Republicans refuse to honor the full faith and credit obligations of the United States.
    They are no different than deadbeat fathers who refuse to pay child support.”

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  25. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The Reps aren’t winning this current debate because they have better one-liners. They are winning because all they have to do to win is to do nothing.

    Someone has to deny unanimous consent — that is something, and it is something that can be put on repeat, over and over. And, then a rollcall vote on the Don’t Send The American Economy Into A Tailspin Act, or the Borrow Enough Money To Cover Trump’s Tax Cuts Act.

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  26. Michael Cain says:

    @Gustopher:
    Ted Cruz has, I believe, already said explicitly he will do it.

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  27. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Cain: Oh, yes, but can we run that, and the roll-call vote, over and over in ads until the media picks up on it and changes the narrative in the mainstream media.

    Dine and Dash Republicans. Deadbeat Dad Republicans.

    We only lose the messaging war if we want to.

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  28. Michael Cain says:

    @Gustopher:
    My big fear is that after a couple of times, Manchin makes a deal with McConnell to continue chairing the Energy Committee and leaves the Democratic Senate caucus. At that point McConnell is majority leader and the issue never comes to the floor again.

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  29. MarkedMan says:

    @Michael Cain: I think this is a legitimate fear. Manchin seems to like being a Senator, but he likes his corruption more. He may feel he can get his payout from his patrons, switch to “R”, and trust McConnell really will try to keep him from being primaried. If that is successful, great, he wins again and if it is not, bummer, but at least he is filthy rich.

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  30. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Gee, I dunno whether a Democrat running in Kentucky will be able to win after his party is the reason that my Social Security check doesn’t get issued and I can’t go to the doctor because I don’t have health insurance anymore. If I were Mitch, I’d roll the dice on this one. I’m just a likely to pass as crap out.

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  31. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds: And yet, the last time I heard a police hostage negotiator say “go ahead, shoot the hostage, we don’t care” is…

    never, now that I think about it. Maybe they need to ask you for lessons on how to do it.

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  32. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @mattbernius: Which is exactly why, confronted with “or we’ll cut off all benefits to all citizens in Republican controlled states,” Mitch will pick “else.” It may be the key to a Republican majority not seen since Roosevelt. The “Hoover Moment” of the Democratic party.

    But go ahead–to switch metaphors–shoot the hostage and see if it works. I live in a blue state and don’t care which party wins. It costs me nothing.

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  33. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    I think you misunderstood what I said. We can’t say, ‘go ahead and shoot’ because they guy with the gun doesn’t care, and we do.

    Shoot the hostage is only useful if you’re ready to play the hardest of hardball and damn the consequences. And mostly it’s only useful if the hostage is only incidental or of relatively minor importance. For example, “If you defuse that nuke, I’ll shoot the hostage.” Or in a case where permitting the bad guy to shoot the hostage you’re in a position then to shoot the bad guy. “You pull the trigger on the hostage, I pull the trigger on you.” In that case you (the good guy) are making a calculation that the bad guy cares more about staying alive than carrying out his threat.

    The only other time I can think of to say ‘shoot the hostage’ is if this hostage taking will likely yield an endless array of hostage takings, in which case, if you want to go all-in badass, you shoot the hostage yourself.

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  34. JohnSF says:

    Nope, still mystified 🙁

    The way the US Congress mixes up statute law with spending mandates, agency establishment, regulation, taxation, duties, and requirements to re-wallpaper the restroom in a Smoky Bears Hideaway is just so icky messy!🙂
    I know, it’s how you do things, and I should be used to it by now (been reading a history of the New Deal lately) but still: weird.

    @Beth:

    … if they use it for the debt ceiling, then they can’t for everything else.

    @Michael Cain:

    That might cost a few votes on the budget bill

    But if they are separated, and you have to juggle the budget a bit to accommodate awkward Sinema and Manchin, isn’t that possible, and maybe preferable?
    Strip out the climate crisis stuff (the main issue I assume) and shove it up the Republicans and Manchin’s … anterior.
    Make them own their refusal.

    @Stormy Dragon:

    next year they can run ads about how the Democrats raised the debt $X

    But, realistically, how many votes that going to cost?
    Surely anyone daft enough to fall for that is going to be voting Republican anyway?

    Reconciliation can only be used to raise the debt limit, not suspend it.

    Any reason why you can’t raise to “umpteen treellion, beellion dollars!” then forget the issue for a century?
    Thus handing debt authorisation over to the Treasury and Central Bank, as most countries manage to do.
    (And then if you you want to mandate debt control, you just damn well put it in the bloody budget in the first damn place by increasing the bloody taxes or cutting the damn spending!)

    Please feel free to tell me I’m an idiot Brit “who knows nothing, JohnSnowF”
    Probably guilty on all counts.

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  35. Gustopher says:

    @JohnSF: You forgot the role of the Senate Parliamentarian.

    Listen, American Exceptionalism doesn’t imply that we do things best, just that no one else does things the way we do. People get confused about that.

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  36. JohnSF says:

    @Gustopher:

    …Senate Parliamentarian

    I keep hearing that name lately. And it doesn’t come up in the histories. Google time.
    Hmm.
    Office originates 1935.
    Wonder why it doesn’t crop up in the New Deal stuff.
    And serves at pleasure of Senate Majority Leader, and he role of the parliamentary staff is advisory, and (Wikipedia!):

    ..the Presiding Officer may overrule the advice of the parliamentarian. In practice, this is rare; the most recent example of a Vice President (as President of the Senate) overruling the parliamentarian was Nelson Rockefeller in 1975. That ruling was extremely controversial, to such an extent that the leaders of both parties immediately met and agreed that they did not want this precedent to stand, so the next week the Senate altered the rule under consideration via standard procedure.

    Eeek!
    Who the gets to say what goes, then? Eh? EH?
    Weirdness intensifies!
    And I used to think our Parliament was pretty arcane, rule-wise.
    (Paging the Bundesrepublik)
    (Also the Assemblée Nationale; being French they, I hope, are reasonably logical. Harvard Law in the hood?)

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  37. Stormy Dragon says:

    @JohnSF:

    Any reason why you can’t raise to “umpteen treellion, beellion dollars!” then forget the issue for a century?

    Because there’s too many stupid people in the US who think the debt ceiling and the national debt are the same thing. So if the Democrats raise the debt ceiling that high, people will think they’re bankrupting the country (and Republicans will tell lies encouraging that misconception).

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  38. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Gee, I dunno whether a Democrat running in Kentucky will be able to win after his party is the reason that my Social Security check doesn’t get issued and I can’t go to the doctor because I don’t have health insurance anymore. If I were Mitch, I’d roll the dice on this one. I’m just a likely to pass as crap out.

    The Democrats running in Kentucky can’t win now. So if the Republicans force a budget crisis, putting as much of the pain as possible on Kentucky to reduce pain in, say, Georgia is a good strategy.

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  39. JohnSF says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Yeah. Sigh.
    The problem of needing the votes of the *ahem* less mentally nimble.
    Just as, in Britain, why Labour Leader Starmer refuses to say “Brexit was daft, OK.”
    Can’t afford to alienate Brexit voters who might be persuadable.

    Given the nature of the Republican Party at present, the Democrats main task has to be winning as much as they can in 2020, to avoid mega-malarkey in 2024.

    But such cajolery: it tasks me!

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  40. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    The Democrats running in Kentucky can’t win now.

    Gov. Andy Beshear might beg to differ.

    The Republican demanded a recanvas, of which Wikipedia dryly notes “The recanvass resulted in only one change, an additional vote for Independent candidate Blackii Effing Whyte, and Bevin conceded that day.”

    Blackii Effin Whyte.

    Whyte plans to travel to all 120 counties in his campaign bus, which is also where he lives. […] It’s also the tour bus for Whyte’s band, the Reefer Kings. So it’s no surprise that his top priority is decriminalizing marijuana.

    Even the red states are a lot more purple than you might expect.

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  41. Gustopher says:

    @JohnSF:

    Can’t afford to alienate Brexit voters who might be persuadable.

    At least our Nixon voters had the common sense to just lie about it, and then pretend it never happened. Made things easier for everyone.

    Probably helped that there was no social media, so they weren’t “on the record” and no one could pin their past on them.

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  42. Sam says:

    @Scott: Why does that message make sense? Democrats own all of government now, everybody knows that.

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  43. John430 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “The Democrats lose these fights because Democrats care about government and the American people.” LOL as the Dems DEMAND trillions in new spending. Dems and caring about good government is an oxymoron.

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  44. Jax says:

    @John430: If Republicans were in charge, they’d be spending the same amount of money on tax cuts for the rich. So which would you rather have the money spent on, regular John’s like you, or buying Bezos and Thiel a new yacht or spaceship?

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  45. @Stormy Dragon:

    If the Dems all vote to increase the debt ceiling and the Repubs filtbuster it, they’re first in line to get funding to their districts cut

    It doesn’t work that way.

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  46. @Stormy Dragon:

    If the chaos is targeted at at Republican areas, then it doesn’t really change things

    Honestly, I am at a loss as to how you think the Dems can pull that off. They won’t be able to raise the debt limit, but they will be able to target the pain to Rep areas?

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  47. @Scott:

    Message discipline works.

    I am in favor of message discipline, but it isn’t magic.

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  48. @mattbernius:

    my point is that not only is it easier for the Republicans to score wins in terms of action, but those little wins have a greater electoral impact because of all the structural rules that have been discussed.

    A heapin’ helpin’ of this.

    I would note that Democrats could pass everything and still face a huge climb to win both chambers in 2022. I would also point out that if the Democrats had seats proportional to their actual electoral strength in the country, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

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  49. @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Which is exactly why, confronted with “or we’ll cut off all benefits to all citizens in Republican controlled states,” Mitch will pick “else.”

    Guys, seriously, where are you all getting this idea from?

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  50. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I would also point out that if the Democrats had seats proportional to their actual electoral strength in the country, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    This cannot be repeated enough.

    (Although, even then, the modern fillibuster would still probably be an issue.)

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  51. @mattbernius: And I would note that part of why I bring it up is that conversations about messaging and the like seem to assume a level playing field, but we are not operating on an equal electoral playing field.

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