Republicans Playing Chicken with Debt Ceiling. Again.

They shall not submit to blackmail!

WaPo’s Paul Kane (“Senate Republicans say they will vote to allow a debt default, leaving Democrats scrambling for plan to avert economic crisis“):

Early last year, one of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s longest rivals offered a lesson about why the Kentucky Republican is unfazed by his critics whenever he digs in on a political strategy.

“The people in Kentucky who know him understand that he can’t be shamed into changing,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who has worked with and clashed with McConnell for more than 50 years, said in an interview.

That was January 2020, and the context focused on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) decision to hold articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump over his actions toward Ukraine to try to pressure McConnell into agreeing to hold an expansive Senate trial that would include witnesses.

Now, almost two years later, Democrats have set up a similar type of strategy that, if successful, will force Republicans to accept their fair share of the national debt that now tops $28 trillion. If this strategy fails, the federal government could run out of funding authority and enter another congressionally forced shutdown — the fourth in less than a decade — and create a debt crisis that could rattle global financial markets.

This setup is rather bizarre. McConnell is shameless. Check. But the subject here is the debt ceiling and . . . Democrats are playing a game to “force Republicans to accept their fair share of the national debt”? How is that a reflection of McConnell’s shamelessness?

McConnell has declared that Senate Republicans will not vote to increase the Treasury’s authority to continue borrowing, which is the same as voting to allow a default.

This makes no sense. The debt ceiling—which we have argued here for years is an idiotic device that shouldn’t exist—is a mechanical process. It occasionally has to be raised to—and this is the reason it’s idiotic— authorize Congress to borrow money that it has already agreed to spend. And how is this a Democratic strategy?

As he has done before, McConnell has essentially created a new rule out of whole cloth to justify his actions.

“Let me make it perfectly clear. The country must never default. The debt ceiling will need to be raised. But who does that depends on who the American people elect,” McConnell told Punchbowl News on Tuesday, acknowledging he will vote for a policy outcome he says he doesn’t want to occur.

Because Democrats control the White House and both branches of Congress, his argument goes, they alone are responsible for safeguarding the government’s creditworthiness and preventing a potential economic calamity.

No such rule exists, nor has it ever.

Sure. Because it’s stupid. The national debt is the accumulation of money borrowed over several decades that has yet to be repaid and continually gets refinanced. Even if we were to ascribe every penny of the money borrowed over the last eight months to the Biden-Pelosi-Schumer team, that doesn’t wipe away the trillions borrowed under Reagan, Bush 41, Bush 43, or Trump. Or the budgets passed during mixed control.

Regardless . . . McConnell agrees that there is no practical choice but to raise the debt ceiling. He just wants to do it without Republican votes?

In fact, almost every time the debt ceiling has been lifted, it has been done in bipartisan fashion under the regular Senate order that requires at least 60 votes to end debate on the legislation.

In today’s 50-50 Senate, that means at least 10 Republicans have to join Democrats to approve a new debt limit or, as has been done in recent years, suspend that law for a few years.

Okay . . . .

Instead, McConnell says he is vehemently opposed to the more than $6 trillion proposed agenda President Biden has pushed on Capitol Hill and is now urging Democrats to use a parliamentary budget move to deal with the debt issue on their own.

The goal is purely political.

McConnell says he doesn’t want to breach the debt limit. He just wants to keep GOP hands clean of all this new spending in advance of the 2022 midterm elections.

Senate Republicans are almost completely united behind McConnell, with 46 Republicans signing a letter saying they will oppose the Democratic plan to pass a new suspension of the debt limit tagged on to a bill to keep federal agencies functioning past the Sept. 30 deadline. Even the four Republicans who did not sign the letter have not indicated whether they will back the plan.

“The Democrats have added enormous amounts of debt, including the $1.9 trillion package, now $3.5 trillion on top of that, so they bear the responsibility for increasing the debt limit,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told reporters this week.

This is literally something out of a Monty Python sketch.

Kane rightly points out that both parties have historically played this absurd game:

The last time the debt crisis hit such an impasse, in late July 2011, the financial markets went into a tailspin until a pair of seasoned Washington hands stepped in and negotiated a settlement: McConnell and then-Vice President Biden.

Before that date, the hypocrisy over the debt limit had been the purview of both parties. When Democrats were out of power, they would vote against raising the debt limit and blame the Republican president for not doing more to keep the debt in check. Republicans did the same when in a similar position.

But that the post-Tea Party Republicans have taken it from silly to dangerous:

But this political game became more dangerous with the rise of tea party movement early last decade because of the willingness of many House Republicans to actually force a default, not just play games with their votes.

Democrats are determined to break the Republican blockade by exposing how their threats could lead to both a government shutdown and a potential default.

“Nobody gets to hold the American economy hostage. Right now, we’re in the middle of it, Mitch McConnell trying to establish a double standard,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in an interview Tuesday.

It’s unlikely to work, though, because—as established earlier—McConnell can’t be shamed.

These McConnell machinations drive Democrats crazy and often lead to weeks or months of battling over the hypocrisy in his decisions, but that’s an area where he is quite comfortable.

As they argue about Senate rules and procedure, McConnell happily points out other areas where Democrats have been hypocritical and the larger public tends to tune out the arcane parliamentary debate.

“I think it’s important, before everybody rushes off to this frenzy of congressional procedure, to understand what’s at stake,” Wyden said. “And what’s at stake is whether or not Mitch McConnell can impose a double standard: Take the economy hostage, and reverse something that just in the last few years the Congress had really said, ‘Look we are in it together.’ ”

No one is certain of the exact timing of all this. The latest estimates, from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and private market analysts, suggested the government would run out of maneuvers to juggle the books by late October.

“We will pass a debt limit [increase]. We don’t know when,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters. “We don’t think that the Treasury is up against a wall yet.”

But the Democrats plan to attach the debt-ceiling issue to the legislation to keep the government funded, a deadline that hits Sept. 30. If Republicans block that measure, over the debt issue, the government would shut down the next day.

Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, acknowledged that McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have had no real discussions and, given his committee, no direction about how to avoid a shutdown.

Democrats acknowledge, for now, that they have no real fallback plan if McConnell and Senate Republicans hold the line and drive the nation into a shutdown or a debt crisis — other than trying to shame McConnell into upholding his previous positions.

As Yarmuth noted in January 2020, that’s a very difficult hand to play regardless of the stakes.

“Mitch is just not going to be pressured,” he said then.

The whole thing is just moronic. One suspects that McConnell will get his way here and Democrats will in fact raise the debt ceiling in a manner that doesn’t require Republican votes. But, really, it’s childish at best and dangerous at worst.

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. MarkedMan says:

    Best possible outcome out of all the bad options? Kill the filibuster for debt ceiling votes, let the Republicans unanimously vote to default, and wrap it aggressively around their necks at the next election.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: The percentage of independent voters who would care is virtually nil.

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  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    @MarkedMan:
    @James Joyner:

    Agreed that the voters don’t care. If Dems should choose to raise the debt ceiling via breaking the filibuster, they shouldn’t simply stop there, but use the vote as an opportunity to end the charade of the debt ceiling.

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  4. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: I guess the only hope is that it will get the monies crowd pissed at them…

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  5. Hal_10000 says:

    If the Dems have to vote on this themselves, then vote to abolish the debt ceiling completely. I’ve had enough of this completely unnecessary game of Russian Roulette.

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  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    childish at best and dangerous at worst.

    Excellent seven word description of the Republican Party.

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  7. Hal_10000 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The difference between the GOP I was part of in the 90’s and the GOP today is night and day. Back then, they talked about ideas — welfare reform, balanced budgets, America’s place in the post-Cold War world, even healthcare reform. Maybe the ideas weren’t good, but they were ideas. But now, the Democrats have taken all their ideas. And all they have is utter nihilism. And it’s now combined with a Cult of Personality.

    I just hope they live long enough to be ashamed of being part of this.

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  8. Barry says:

    @Hal_10000: “I’ve had enough of this completely unnecessary game of Russian Roulette.”

    That’s the best way of putting it – this is like firing off financial nukes and relying on the self-destructs to work. And doing it again and again and again.

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  9. Beth says:

    This is going to be an unpopular/stupid opinion, but I’m of the mind to just say F* it and allow the default. Yeah, it’ll be crushing to poor and middle class people, but it will actually hurt the rich and they need to be reminded that the politicians that they bought have to be reigned in from time to time.

    I’m just overwhelming sick of the utter BS from Republicans. Maybe it’s just time to shoot the hostage and get it over with.

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  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Hal_10000:
    I have long believed that the collapse of conservative ideology – small government, trickle down, low taxes, balanced budgets and government control of public morals – is what gave rise to the Tea Party and Trumpism. Conservatism suffered a death-by-reality.

    With the death of conservative economic theories, what remained of the GOP was its racism, misogyny and bigotry. From the ashes rose popularism which promptly gave way to a cult of personality and fascism.

    Someone – maybe Prof. Taylor? – will write a book about this. Suggested title: Trump: The MAGAt in the Corpse of Conservatism. Although I imagine he might want to tweak that title a bit.

    I have a hope, it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of a theory, that both the MAGA movement and progressivism have peaked. On the Left I see progressivism moderating into a more comfortable liberalism. But I’m damned if I see a way forward for the MAGAts, they don’t really have a home to return to. Some new counterpoint to liberalism will have to be invented, I suppose.

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  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Beth:

    Maybe it’s just time to shoot the hostage and get it over with.

    Yep.

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  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Beth: Yeah, it’ll be crushing to poor and middle class people, but it will actually hurt the rich

    I have to disagree with this 2nd part. The rich will be fine, they will always be fine. It’s the golden rule: The man with the gold, makes the rules and moral hazards are only important when it comes to poor folk.

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  13. MarkedMan says:

    @Beth: This attitude is appealing, but it never works. Just as so many said, “I hope Trump gets elected because then “they” will have to see how bad things will get”, “they” never do see. If you are the type of self centered nitwit that plays games with the credit rating of the United States, you are never going to learn anything.

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  14. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Hal_10000:

    And all they have is utter nihilism

    Stop blaming Nihilists for the Republicans. There’s a big difference between nihilism and sadism.

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  15. Gustopher says:

    McConnell wants it passed through budget reconciliation to force the Democrats to use their budget reconciliation right now, rather than to pass the infrastructure plan. It’s actually a very clever tactic.

    Democrats should bring a clean debt limit bill (whichever they like best, raise or ignore or kill), let it get filibustered, and then bring a vote on filibuster reform. McConnell will likely blink, or Sinema and Manchin. A vote an hour.

    Let the shutdown happen. Let the markets take the hit (good buying time, if you want to invest more), and start shutting down the government in ways that hurt red states more. Do we have FEMA payments going out for the recent hurricanes? Those can be delayed. Etc.

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  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Hal_10000: Interesting to me in your comment is that I’d already given up on the notions that conservative “ideas” were anything more than slogans by the time Clinton was elected. Either way, as long as the rubes in the hustings believe that paralyzing the government is the only route left (which goes to split ticket voting and contrarian Congress/Presidential split control that was a topic of discussion even in the 7os as I recall) the GQP caucus in Congress has no incentive to do anything other than obstruct. It’s what they’ve been sent to do. Again, apologies to Huey and Angela–burning the sucka to the ground may have been the right (no pun intended) direction to go.

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  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Depends on which level of rich. At the Reynolds, Eddie in CA, guy down the way with a few million level rich, yeah, those people stand to be hurt pretty bad, too, just like a cancer diagnosis wipes one out financially even if they have insurance (or, maybe, used to before the Affordable Care Act–I haven’t ever gone into the weeds that deep). Romneys, Gateses, Warren Buffet, Amazon Guy, Tesla and Rocket Ship vanity cruise Guy, Virgin Space Vanity Cruise Guy have more money than they’d ever spend in a million lifetimes. They’ll look hurt, but even at a 75 or 80% decline in asset value (which would be end of civilization as we know it, so I don’t see it happening) will still leave them hundreds of times more wealthy than whatever the median will look like.

    If the world ended up like Korea before industrialization–simply not enough food available to last out an extended winter–they’ll hurt more because they have no foraging skills, but as long as someone else will sell them tree bark and grass guk (it’s like kim chee guk without the kim chee), they’ll be fine.

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  18. Beth says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    In general I agree with you, in the long term, the Rich will be fine. But if your wealth is tied up in real estate and securities and the bottom drops out of those markets it will hurt. It will hurt a lot.

    @MarkedMan:

    Oh, I don’t think it’s a good idea, it’s a very bad idea, but we’re at the point as a Country that the Right isn’t interested in anything other than it’s Rich funders, White Supremacy and hostage taking. It’s very fatalistic on my part, but I don’t see how things get better without them getting worse first. The General left has been working hard to keep the hostage alive. Again, maybe it’s just better to shoot the hostage and deal directly with the terrorists.

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  19. Mikey says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Stop blaming Nihilists for the Republicans. There’s a big difference between nihilism and sadism.

    Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.

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  20. EddieInCA says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Depends on which level of rich. At the Reynolds, Eddie in CA, guy down the way with a few million level rich, yeah, those people stand to be hurt pretty bad, too, just like a cancer diagnosis wipes one out financially even if they have insurance (or, maybe, used to before the Affordable Care Act–I haven’t ever gone into the weeds that deep).

    Oh… my friend… I’m nowhere near rich. I’m not even rich-adjacent. But I am thankful that I’m able to be comfortable, and I don’t have to worry about making rent every month. But, like most of us on this site, I need to work. To me, “rich” means that you work because you want to, not because you have to. I still have to work.

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  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: t the Reynolds, Eddie in CA, guy down the way with a few million level rich, yeah,

    I don’t think of them as rich, but rather well off. I have a couple friends in that territory. Yeah, they could buy me out several times over but they are far closer to me than they are the Bezos, Musks and Bloombergs of the world.

    @Beth: But if your wealth is tied up in real estate and securities and the bottom drops out of those markets it will hurt. It will hurt a lot.

    Something about that scenario says, “Government bailout” to me, just as it did in ’09.

    @Beth: Again, maybe it’s just better to shoot the hostage and deal directly with the terrorists.

    I’ve got a better idea, shoot the terrorists.

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  22. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @EddieInCA: To me, rich means that you can talk about where your second house is and needing to go to… Maui was it?… to decompress from the pressures of finishing a job. I’m not complaining and don’t want you to think that you’re not deserving of whatever you have, and you should do whatever you want with it, by all means. But rich is definitely a sliding scale thing. My friend on a Social Security stipend so small that he qualifies for public assistance and had to wait for his latest Covid-19 subsidy payment to come in to order a new mattress believes that I’m rich–and I am by comparison to him even though I make less a year than your production assistant. It’s all in what one chooses and how one is willing to live.

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  23. Gustopher says:

    @Mikey: I’m pretty sure most of our current Nazis are just Nihilists cosplaying as Nazis.

    It’s how you get Black White Supremacists and similar freaks.*

    And, honestly, I think they’re worse than actual Nazis. Left to their own devices, either will end up shoving people in ovens, but there’s something worse about shoving people in ovens just to troll the libs.

    At least the Nazis wanted to build a better world. Their methods left a lot to be desired, of course.

    ——
    *: Say what you will about the movie The Spirit (it’s generally considered to be a bad movie), but the imagery of Samuel L. Jackson in full Nazi regalia really seems prescient. Not for Jackson himself, but for Candace Owens, Larry Elder, Diamond and Silk, the Hispanic dude at the Proud Boys…

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  24. Jay L Gischer says:

    So, as much as I dislike his politics, I don’t think Mitch McConnell is dumb, nor is he capricious. So there’s a purpose to this. Maybe it’s a bargaining position? Maybe he hopes to trade his signoff for some tax reductions? Or maybe he’s trying to prevent the thing where his caucus gets split by Joe Manchin’s maneuvering?

    I don’t necessarily take these things at face value while they are playing out. I expect a deal will be struck at the 11th hour, and stuff will go forward in some form.

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  25. EddieInCA says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Just nutha ignint cracker says:
    Sunday, 19 September 2021 at 16:03

    @EddieInCA: To me, rich means that you can talk about where your second house is and needing to go to… Maui was it?… to decompress from the pressures of finishing a job

    Fair enough. But it’s Kauai or the Big Island. I’ve yet to make it to Maui. 🙂

    But point taken. You’re 100% correct.

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  26. Michael Reynolds says:

    @EddieInCA: @OzarkHillbilly: @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I might arguably be rich in Alabama. Los Angeles is not Alabama (as I’m sure James and Steven will agree). I have a car that would be a rich guy’s car in Mobile, here it’s. . . nice. I have a 2000 square foot house with a view and a pool that costs what (I checked this) a six bedroom, eight bath, 8700 square foot house on three acres costs in Huntsville. (Jesus, really? Some times. . .).

    But my metric is personal. I am so far beyond where I was in the South Lake Tahoe jail, or in a room the size of a walk-in closet in Ocean City, that I wish there was a God just so I’d have someone to thank. I have a car that starts every single time! I can go to any restaurant! I can drink excellent whisky and smoke the finest green! Maybe not 100% mission accomplished, but it’s getting there.

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  27. Matt says:

    @Beth: Modern history has shown that the rich will come out ahead of where they started in that scenario. Just look at the great recession of 2008 and how rich families leveraged their capital to increase their wealth massively. That’s how the Waltons are making +$4,000,000 an hour with just their investments. The rich can afford to ride things out and they learned to hoover up stuff while it’s cheap because 10 years from now it’ll be huge profits.

    So the rich will just move some numbers around on paper and take more as a percentage of all wealth in the USA..

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  28. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Exactly. And well done on your part.

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  29. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I am so far beyond where I was in the South Lake Tahoe jail, or in a room the size of a walk-in closet in Ocean City, that I wish there was a God just so I’d have someone to thank. I have a car that starts every single time! I can go to any restaurant! I can drink excellent whisky and smoke the finest green! Maybe not 100% mission accomplished, but it’s getting there.

    And I am not in the Iron County Jail, but we own our place free and clear, we have enough savings to take care of my wife’s tranny and pay our home owners insurance and taxes, my pension comes into our savings account every month, I get to travel and see my NOLA son at least once a year.

    It ain’t perfect, but life ain’t bad.

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  30. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @EddieInCA: Wa! 100% correct. Not even my students said that about things that I said, and they had a vested interest in sucking up to me. Thank you! That was very gracious.

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  31. rachel says:

    @Beth: I can understand where you’re coming from; really, I can. But the thing you have to remember is is where the rich are in the economic food chain. They are scavengers. They are the opportunistic and the carrion-eaters. When things fo well with the other species, things go well for them too; and when things go badly for the other species… They are still just fine.

    What you are proposing only leaves them more dead bodies to pick over. It will not hurt them at all.

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  32. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Dude! You’re rich.

    You ain’t mega rich, but you’re pretty fucking relatively rich. Don’t dodge it. It’s not uncool in the slightest. You earned that by your talent and you hit the luck lottery too. No worries!

    Within the context that means something to me I got enough cash to see me through to the end of my days. I have really simple almost ascetic tastes. (I do like high end A/V gear even though realistically it is only marginally better than the base. I like minimal looking fancy.)

    I do not want and would actively hate a fancy lifestyle and a big ass house. I would fucking hate that – the anxiety overhead. Nah. Not for me. Not my style. Nope.

    I am happy with a little bungalow.

    You earned your shit. You have zero reason to apologize.

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  33. Tony W says:

    I have no problem describing us as “rich”. In my mind “rich” means that I don’t have to work anymore because we either have tons of money, or we have modified our lifestyle to the point we can get by on what we have.

    We are retired young because we decided that we had enough – that our remaining years were too important to squander making money that we were never going to spend (or if we did there would be no appreciable improvement in our lives).

    So we decided that our modest home and modest cars and modest dining habits were enough.

    In my early 50s I could see that I was never going to be any healthier or younger than I was that day, so let’s get out and do some stuff while we can still move without much pain.

    I walked away from tens of thousands of stock grants, and hundreds of thousands in salary that I would have made during my 50s. All money that would have made no difference in my happiness, or that of my spouse or our grown kids. I guess we could have bought a new Tesla every year, but the Honda starts every time I need it to. And I like taco shops in San Diego far better than seafood bistros with snooty waiters who judge my Metallica t-shirt like it’s some kind of fashion faux-pas.

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  34. SJP NPC says:

    This is some Doug M. (RIP) level hackery from Joyner.
    Republicians don;t want to give Democrats the bipartisan cover.
    http://ace.mu.nu/archives/395706.php
    “He says it should be raised, but it’s the obligation of the Democrats to do it themselves.

    Mitt Romney, of all people, explains the thinking: If the Democrats are making all spending and taxing decisions without bipartisan give-and-take, why should Republicans have to help Democrats with this vote?”

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