WASHINGTON ― Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill this week after he claimed that Democrats had prematurely celebrated the fiscal deal they negotiated with President Donald Trump.
Republicans, he asserted, actually walked out of last week’s high-stakes meeting in the Oval Office in a better position than initially reported.
“Let’s put it this way. The deal is not quite as good as my counterpart thought it was,” the Kentucky Republican said during an interview published by The New York Times on Monday, referring to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Employing a fumbled football metaphor, McConnell added that Democrats had “spiked the ball in the end zone a little too early.”
Facing a budget deadline, lawmakers last week agreed to fund the government for three months and raise the debt ceiling with no strings attached. GOP leaders, however, initially objected to the idea of a short-term proposal, seeking to delay another controversial vote on raising the debt ceiling for 18 months ― until after the 2018 midterm elections. (Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan even called the short-term proposal “ridiculous” and “disgraceful” just hours before walking into the White House where Trump agreed to the Democrats’ position).
But in his interview with the Times, McConnell argued that the way he wrote the bill to raise the debt ceiling would actually delay the fight over the next debt ceiling hike until “well into” 2018. It did so, he said, by preserving the Treasury Department’s ability to apply so-called “extraordinary measures” ― or steps to shift money around within government accounts ― in order avoid a default.
“Since I was in charge of drafting the debt ceiling provision that we inserted into the flood bill we likely — almost certainly — are not going to have another debt ceiling discussion until well into 2018,” McConnell said.
It is standard protocol, however, to include such a provision when raising the debt ceiling. The Treasury Department took “extraordinary measures” as recently as March, for example, by suspending investments in a civil service retirement fund and a separate federal employees’ fund.
Moreover, it’s difficult to see how postponing a fight over raising the debt ceiling, a politically sensitive vote for Republicans, gives the party much of an upper hand. GOP leaders will now need Democratic support in order to pass two separate high-stakes measures ― a bill to fund the government in December, as well as a separate bill to hike the debt limit sometime in 2018.
“I can’t imagine why they’d want to give us two bites at the apple,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide.
The situation is likely further complicated by the fact that GOP leaders will need to ask their members to vote to raise the debt ceiling in the middle of an election year ― the exact scenario they hoped to avoid in the first place.
Asked about McConnell’s characterization on Tuesday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) pushed back on the notion that Democrats were “celebrating” the agreement.
“All we did was a three-month kick in the can down the road. Nobody should think this is a Democratic victory. We still have a lot of work ahead of us,” he said.
Still, Murphy acknowledged that it is in Democrats’ interest to approach high-stakes negotiations from a position of strength.
“In the minority party, you want more leverage rather than less leverage,” he said. “But you still gotta get a good deal done for the country in December.”