Manchin Won the Debt Ceiling Fight

Neither Republicans nor Democrats are happy. But one man is.

I subheaded yesterday morning’s post reacting to the tentative debt ceiling deal, “We almost wrecked the economy . . . for this?”

Most of the pundits seem to agree that the Republican leadership got very little for their gambit.

WaPo’s Catherine Rampell (“With this debt limit deal, Congress has beclowned itself“):

With apologies to Peggy Lee: Is that all there is?

[…]

We’re still waiting on details, of course. But from what we know so far, this much-ballyhooed “deal” doesn’t seem terribly different from whatever budget agreement would have materialized anyway later this year, during the usual annual appropriations process, under divided government. To President Biden’s credit, the most objectionable ransoms that Republicans had been demanding are all gone. For example, there are no longer sharp cuts to safety-net programs, nor measures to effectively block all agency regulations nor new work requirements for Medicaid.

[…]

What was the point of all this drama, exactly?

Dean Obeidallah, The Dean’s Report (“The Debt ceiling deal was a big WIN for Biden—and a big LOSS for Trump and MAGA“):

President Biden won and Donald Trump/MAGA lost—again. It’s that simple when it comes to the debt ceiling deal announced Saturday night.

Keep in mind Trump was demanding a debt ceiling default because he wants to tank our strong economy given he believes it helps him win in 2024. Trump publicly stated and posted on social media as much, recently writing that Republicans should cause a default, “UNLESS THEY [GOP] GET EVERYTHING THEY WANT (Including the “kitchen sink”).”

[…]

GOP Rep Ken Buck tweeted: “Ronald Reagan said: “If you got seventy-five or eighty percent of what you were asking for, I say, you take it and fight for the rest later.” Speaker McCarthy’s version: “If you can get five or six percent of what you were asking for, you take the deal and claim victory.”

Republican Rep. Ralph Norman wrote on Twitter: “This “deal” is insanity. A $4T debt ceiling increase with virtually no cuts is not what we agreed to. Not gonna vote to bankrupt our country. The American people deserve better.”

Then there was North Carolina Rep Dan Bishop who tweeted: “RINOs congratulating McCarthy for getting almost zippo in exchange for $4T debt ceiling hike.” (You can read even more MAGA Reps going ballistic here.)

This doesn’t mean all Democrats are happy either. Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said on CNN Sunday morning that the White House does “have to worry” that progressive Democrats may not support the agreement. Jayapal, however, added that until lawmakers see “the exact legislative text,” it’s unclear how much opposition there will be.

The NYT’s Peter Baker is a modest dissenter (“In Pursuit of Consensus, Did Biden Find the Reasonable Middle or Give Away Too Much?“):

After weeks of tense wrangling between the White House and House Republicans, the fiscal deal reached on Saturday to raise the debt ceiling while constraining federal spending bolsters President Biden’s argument that he is the one figure who can still do bipartisanship in a profoundly partisan era.

But it comes at the cost of rankling many in his own party who have little appetite for meeting Republicans in the middle and think the president cannot stop himself from giving away too much in an eternal and ephemeral quest for consensus. And it will now test his influence over fellow Democrats he will need to pass the deal in Congress.

[…]

This is not a moment, however, in which bipartisanship is valued in the way it was when Mr. Biden came up through the Senate in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. His desire to position himself as the leader who can bring together a deeply divided country is at the heart of his case for a second term next year. But it conflicts with the interests of many Democrats who see more political benefit in standing firm against former President Donald J. Trump’s Republican Party and prefer to draw a sharper contrast for their own elections in 2024 when they hope to recapture the House.

[…]

[M]any on the political left are aggravated that Mr. Biden in their view gave into Mr. McCarthy’s hostage-taking strategy. The president who said the debt ceiling was “not negotiable” ended up negotiating it after all to avoid a national default, barely even bothering with the fiction that talks over spending limits were somehow separate.

Liberals were pushing Mr. Biden to stiff the Republicans and short-circuit the debt ceiling altogether by claiming the power to ignore it under the 14th Amendment, which says the “validity of the public debt” of the federal government “shall not be questioned.” But while Mr. Biden agreed with the constitutional interpretation, he concluded it was too risky because the nation could still go into default while the issue was being litigated in the courts.

And so, much to the chagrin of his allies, the bargaining of recent weeks was entirely on Republican terms. While details were still emerging this weekend, the final agreement included no new Biden fiscal initiatives like higher taxes on the wealthy or expanded discounts for insulin. The question essentially was how much of the Limit, Save and Grow Act passed by House Republicans last month would the president accept in exchange for increasing the debt ceiling.

But that’s a rather silly standard for judging the outcome. “No negotiations” was always an absurd position, regardless of one feels about the morality of using the threat of default on the nation’s credit as a lever to force negotiations. Stupid thought it may be, there is a debt ceiling in place and there aren’t enough Democratic votes to raise it. Of course Biden was going to have to make at least nominal concessions to get Republicans to go along.

In their WSJ explainer “How a Debt-Ceiling Deal That Neither Side Wanted Cracked the Logjam in Washington,” Lindsay Wise and Annie Linskey give a fair and detailed accounting of the back-and-forth over the last few weeks. It’s long and I won’t excerpt it here.

The surprising news comes from POLITICO’s Josh Siegel (“Debt ceiling deal includes surprise approval of natural gas pipeline championed by Manchin“):

The text of the debt ceiling bill released on Sunday would approve all the remaining permits to complete the stalled Mountain Valley Pipeline, delivering a big win for West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito.

But the backing of the pipeline that would deliver gas from West Virginia into the Southeast is sure to set off bitter complaints from the environmental groups that have fought its construction for years and turned the project into a symbol of their struggle against fossil fuels.

Manchin hailed the bill’s language, saying finishing the pipeline would lower energy costs for the United States and West Virginia.

“I am proud to have fought for this critical project and to have secured the bipartisan support necessary to get it across the finish line,” he said in a statement.

[…]

“After working with Speaker McCarthy and reiterating what completing the Mountain Valley Pipeline would mean for American jobs and domestic energy production, I am thrilled it is included in the debt ceiling package that avoids default,” Capito, a Republican, said in a statement. “Despite delay after delay, we continued to fight to get this critical natural gas pipeline up and running, and its inclusion in this deal is a significant victory for the future of West Virginia.”

The project has won support from the White House, which argues the controversial project is needed for U.S. energy security. Its approval comes after the approval of the Willow oil project in Alaska, which activists have said undercuts the Biden administration’s climate promises.

Including the project in the debt bill came as a surprise that wasn’t revealed by either negotiating side until the release of the bill text Sunday night.

Somehow, even though he’s no longer the decisive vote, the bastard keeps winning. I didn’t even know this was part of the conversation.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    I guess the obvious lesson here is that the left has just been too reasonable and needs to start threatening to destroy the economy if we don’t get tax increases.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Republican Rep. Ralph Norman wrote on Twitter: “This “deal” is insanity. A $4T debt ceiling increase with virtually no cuts is not what we agreed to. Not gonna vote to bankrupt our country. The American people deserve better.”

    You already did you putrid sack of duplicitous shit. Time after time after time when racking up $7.8 trillion worth of debt during trump’s disastrous reign.

  3. Paine says:

    I can refer Rep. Norman to a clip of Kevin McCarthy explaining that this is money already spent. Of course, that was said during the Trump years.

    This may be a decent outcome for Biden (and certainly better than trashing the economy) but in the long term it simply normalizes this sort of brinkmanship every time we have a R house and a D president. This will happen again and again and again until a president stands firm.

  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    Dems have only themselves to blame. They could have passed the debt limit increase last session, but chose not to, in order to pass the budget (For the life of me I can’t understand why the couldn’t do both.) and lock in certain programs and spending. Some of which are now being reversed in the Biden-McCarthy deal.

  5. DK says:

    Supreme blame belongs to Americans who keep voting for the extremist and terroristic Republican Party.

  6. Kathy says:

    I wasn’t worried on this round of “Let’s Take The World Economy Hostage For Political Grandstanding.” I had two reasons: 1) I figured in emulation of El Cheeto, the GQP leadership would suck at negotiating. 2) I’m still certain Biden had a plan B, either 14th amendment or a gimmick like the infamous platinum coin (maybe a proton cryptocoin?).

    My question, though, is this: given the Democrats don’t take the economy hostage, and the Republiqans will do it at irregular intervals, why didn’t the Democrats abolish the debt ceiling when they controlled the last Congress?

    I assume “these people are not idiots,” and therefore they didn’t because they couldn’t. That is, it couldn’t be done in budget reconciliation, and they wouldn’t abolish the filibuster first to do it in regular order.

  7. Wr says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Oh, for God’s sake, how many times do we have to hear “why didn’t Dems just end the debt ceiling when they were in control” malarkey? How many times do you need to get the same answer? For what I hope is the last time, they didn’t do this because the two worst members of the coalition refused to go along with it and without Manchin and Sinema they didn’t have the votes.

    Can we finally move on from this?

  8. Wr says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Oh, for God’s sake, how many times do we have to hear “why didn’t Dems just end the debt ceiling when they were in control” malarkey? How many times do you need to get the same answer? For what I hope is the last time, they didn’t do this because the two worst members of the coalition refused to go along with it and without Manchin and Sinema they didn’t have the votes.

    Can we finally move on from this?

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    Too much was on the line for Democrats to behave like Republicans. You cannot out-psychopath a psychopath. We are never going to care less about real human beings than they do. But, despite that, you may sometimes be able to divert, delay, outwit and outlast the psychopaths, which is what Biden appears to have done.

  10. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Wr:

    We can’t because the own it.

  11. just nutha says:

    @Kathy:
    To the degree that I can recall, it was because Manchin and Sinema wouldn’t agree to it. ☹️

  12. Gustopher says:

    But that’s a rather silly standard for judging the outcome. “No negotiations” was always an absurd position, regardless of one feels about the morality of using the threat of default on the nation’s credit as a lever to force negotiations. Stupid thought it may be, there is a debt ceiling in place and there aren’t enough Democratic votes to raise it.

    With the 14th Amendment interpretation, there is no debt limit. It makes as much sense to negotiate over that as it does to negotiate over a fictional pink bunny.

    Will the Republicans sue to blow up the economy? Maybe! Will they have standing? Maybe! Will their well-monied backers get incredibly nervous and do everything in their power to pull on their leases and rein them back in? Absolutely!

    We’re going to have this crisis sooner or later as the Republicans want to dance on the edge of the cliff, and the Republicans aren’t getting any more rational, so we should have the fight now, while there are still some semi-sane Republicans who will try to hold back the worst elements of their party.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher:

    With the 14th Amendment interpretation, there is no debt limit.

    President Biden has hundreds of the most brilliant attorneys in the United States in his employ. My strong guess is that they told him he would instantly be laughed out of court. The “14th Amendment” ploy has as much likelihood of success as the “Trillion Dollar Platinum coin” boondoggle.

  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Maybe! Will their well-monied backers get incredibly nervous and do everything in their power to pull on their leases and rein them back in? Absolutely!

    This is one of those “I hope you’re right” kind of things. We may be reaching the point where these guys believe themselves rich enough to survive anything. Even global economic cataclysm.

    Some of them may see destroying the world economy as the untimate game-winning move. “Who’s number one now, suckahs!”

  15. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    You cannot out-psychopath a psychopath.

    This.

    I have always expected a negotiated outcome. I still expect it (it ain’t over until it’s over). I have been down this road way too many times, both on the national stage and in the CA legislature a few decades ago.

    Biden’s main obstacle to the “14th Amendment Solution” is political, not legal. Were you aware James Baker did some illegal stuff during a budget/debt negotiation. I think the political strategy is 1) Do everything you can to avoid the problem, 2) If the problem comes anyway, keep issuing debt and paying, and 3) let them sue you for writing Social Security checks and VA benefits, if they do then 4) make your case and add the “necessity defense”, which is a recognized common law thing – you broke the law to avoid something worse.

    Biden is a negotiator. The debt ceiling leverage didn’t do much. All these guys are really good negotiators, McCarthy included. But he didn’t have that much leverage, probably because he understands the sequence above. And also because it only takes 4 or 5 votes for him to lose control.

    I mean, to some of you this might sound like I’m a disloyal Democrat. I would prefer something where the debt ceiling isn’t a thing. But that seems very, very tough to do politically. In reality, we might be close.

    You’ll note that the Gephardt Rule mostly cancelled out the debt ceiling, but this was done by a rule, not by an Act of Congress. I’m pretty sure nobody wants to do a full repeal of the debt limit in a partisan way, that’s going to make political ads for the next century. So we’re kind of stuck with where we are now. I sort of feel that the debt ceiling has become a paper tiger.

    I mean, it’s kind of a “We really mean it this time!” thing.

  16. Kathy says:

    @just nutha:

    That seems to be the prevalent opinion.

    At this time, though, I’d rather not speculate on the makeup of the next Senate.

    @James Joyner:

    That’s one possibility. Another is that the GQP would sue, and a judge or appeals court or even the SCOTUS might mandate default while the legal niceties are worked out. And still another, Biden might be determined to stay as within standing norms as possible.

  17. Matt says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Every time there’s been a market crash or “adjustment” the uber rich have ended up even richer. When everyone is going broke and desperate to sell it’s super easy to vastly expand your wealth on the cheap if you’ve already got a big stack of cash. The 2008 crash in particular padded the pockets of the top 0.1% a LOT..

    So really it’s a win win when you’re that rich.

  18. Ken_L says:

    The Keystone pipeline was a popular political totem for years. When Trump finally approved it, it turned out the owners weren’t all that eager to build it after all. Let’s hope the same thing will happen to the Mountain Valley project.

    David Dayen expressed my own thoughts pretty well about the agreement as a whole:

    Imagine a world where we were a normal country with no debt ceiling, but everything else was exactly the same. Thanks to gerrymandering and the malpractice of the New York Democratic Party, Republicans still have the House, and the budget for the current fiscal year still expires on September 30. Republicans and Democrats would still have to negotiate that budget, and one likely outcome of that would be that negotiations fall apart, that there’s just no way to reconcile what both sides want. In that case, either the government shuts down or a continuing resolution is struck, which means that the government would operate at the current funding levels for a period of time. Maybe we’d live under a CR for the entire two years of this Congress.

    That’s approximately what happened in this agreement.

    https://prospect.org/politics/05-28-2023-biden-mccarthy-debt-ceiling-deal/

    The interesting question is why McCarthy caved when Trump and lots of MAGA Republicans clearly wanted to force a default. The most likely explanation is that at least five Republicans were prepared to support a short ‘clean’ debt limit increase to allow negotiations to continue, and he could see the whole exercise dragging on into the new year, with unknowable economic and political consequences.

  19. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Ken_L:

    Do you not realize that a government shutdown and a debt default are not the same thing? The government shutting down doesn’t damage our credit rating or increase the interest rates we have to pay on existing debt because the payments on existing obligations still get paid in the mean time.

    This David Dayen article is like saying that if someone gets a pay cut, having to cancel their Netflix subscription is just as bad as not paying the mortgage.

  20. Ken_L says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Yes I do realise that, but I fail to see what it has to do with my comment. The agreement covers both the debt limit and the budget, and should remove the threat of both default and shutdown for the remainder of this Congress.