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Wake Up To Politics - October 6, 2021

Wake Up To Politics: Debt ceiling standoff comes to a head
Wake Up To Politics - October 6, 2021

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, October 6, 2021. Election Day 2024 is 1,126 days away. Election Day 2022 is 398 days away.

Oh, and the debt ceiling deadline is 12 days away. That’s where I’m starting off today’s newsletter, once again, since the Senate will hold a vote that will place the legislative impasse in full view.

As you read on, keep in mind the consequences of the U.S. defaulting on its debt for the first time, which will happen on October 18 if the debt ceiling isn’t raised or suspended by then. According to Moody’s Analytics, a default would trigger a global financial crisis, wiping out 6 million jobs and $15 trillion of household wealth in the U.S. alone.

With that bright thought in mind, let’s take a look at where things stand in this high-stakes fiscal debate:

Debt ceiling standoff comes to a head

With less than two weeks left for lawmakers to address the nation’s borrowing limit, the Senate will hold a procedural vote today on a bill that would suspend the debt ceiling through December 2022.

Today’s vote is already doomed. To advance, the measure will need 60 votes in support — all 50 Senate Democrats, plus at least 10 Republicans. So far, not a single Republican senator has committed to voting for the debt ceiling suspension, all but guaranteeing that the bill will fail.

Even the more conciliatory members of the Senate Republican Conference have embraced their leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) insistence that Democrats unilaterally act on the debt ceiling. “We’re not voting in any way to help raise the debt ceiling,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), one of the most frequent GOP aisle-crossers, told Bloomberg on Tuesday. “As a group, we are all together.”

McConnell has stuck to his position that if Democrats are planning to use the one-party reconciliation process to pass trillions of dollars in new spending, they should also use the process to raise the debt ceiling. Democrats have responded by pointing out that both parties have always worked together in the past to increase the borrowing limit; at the very least, debt ceiling legislation has never before been filibustered (blocked from reaching the floor for a vote), as Republicans are planning to do today.

Indeed, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) — a member of McConnell’s leadership team — told the New York Times that “40 or 45” Republicans would be willing to vote by unanimous consent (which is not a recorded vote) to allow the debt ceiling bill to reach the floor. However, one senator can stand in the way of a unanimous consent agreement, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has already committed to doing so.

If Republicans are denied the easy way out by Cruz and forced to go on the record on the issue, Blunt said, none of those “40 or 45” will vote to allow the measure to advance and all will join the filibuster. That’s the vote the Senate will be taking today.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is insisting Democrats raise the debt ceiling on their own. (Nathan Posner / Wake Up To Politics)

So what happens next? Democrats really don’t want to bow to McConnell and use reconciliation to raise the debt ceiling. For one thing, they claim not to have enough time to go through the complex process by the October 18 default deadline — and worry Republicans like Cruz will put up procedural roadblocks that will prolong the process even further.

For another, although they don’t say it, using reconciliation would likely require Democrats to raise the debt ceiling to a specific new amount, rather than simply tabling the debt ceiling until a specific date, as they would prefer to do.

“We do not have the luxury of using a drawn-out, convoluted and risky process,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Tuesday. “We can prevent a catastrophic default with a simple majority vote tomorrow. If Republicans just get out of the damn way, we can get this all done.” (McConnell has pushed back on the idea that Democrats don’t have enough time to use reconciliation.)

Going through reconciliation would include two “vote-a-ramas” that would give Republicans the opportunity to force votes on amendments that would politically embarrass the Democrats. A slew of Republicans have signaled that they wouldn’t make the reconciliation process too painful for Democrats — but there are still some risks involved. “I’m not going to be a complete asshole about it,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Politico. “But I’m going to make them take some tough votes.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has called for Republicans to “get out of the damn way” on the debt ceiling. (Nathan Posner / Wake Up To Politics)

Hoping to avoid reconciliation, Democrats are eyeing a new debt ceiling escape hatch. The idea racing across the Capitol on Tuesday was for Democrats to change the filibuster rules to create a carve-out for debt ceiling bills, so the debt limit could be raised or suspended by simple majority.

According to Politico, Senate Democrats discussed the idea at their caucus lunch on Tuesday — and it has already generated more support among the caucus than the prospect of using reconciliation. President Biden also opened the door to the idea, calling it a “real possibility” when asked by reporters.

“If you’re ever gonna change the filibuster, doing it to stop the meltdown of the economy is a pretty good reason,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told the Wall Street Journal.

Democrats can change the filibuster rules through a simple majority vote — but it would require the entire caucus’ support, including centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who have long refused to budge in their support of the filibuster.

“Forget the filibuster,” Manchin told reporters earlier this week. “We can prevent default.” He did not outline how Democrats plan to go about it.

Sen. Joe Manchin has shot down any filibuster changes in the past and has not indicated his position will be different for the debt ceiling. (Nathan Posner / Wake Up To Politics)

One final thought bubble: Reforming the filibuster has been progressive Democrats’ white whale for the entirety of the Biden era. If Manchin and Sinema were to bend and allow a debt ceiling carve-out, it would send a huge signal to the left flank of the party that their filibuster stance is suddenly malleable.

Pressure on the duo to also back carve-outs for voting rights and other issues would immediately intensify — something they surely know and that will likely shape their thinking as they mull whether to take that route for the debt ceiling.

Ask Gabe: Your questions, answered

One of my favorite parts of writing this newsletter is receiving all the great questions so many of you send in. Just like yesterday, I want to take a moment to answer some of them here, in case more than one of you have been wondering the same things.

Let’s kick things off with a question about shutdowns:

When there is a government shutdown and federal employees are not paid and Social Security checks are not distributed, are members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, and the president not paid as well? — Joanne G.

While most government officials go without pay during shutdowns, each of the figures Joanne mentioned — the president, House and Senate members, and Supreme Court justices — do not see their pay interrupted.

That’s because various provisions and amendments in the Constitution prohibit presidents, lawmakers, and justices from having their salaries changed while they’re in office, which protects their pay during shutdowns. Other federal workers, including White House and congressional staffers, have no such protections. (This disconnect has attracted attention in the past, and various lawmakers have introduced unsuccessful bills in recent shutdowns that would freeze congressional pay during shutdowns.)

One last thing to note: due to a law passed after the 2018-19 shutdown, federal workers are now guaranteed backpay once shutdowns end, so those officials who are affected do receive compensation retroactively.

Federal workers protest at the Capitol during the 2013 government shutdown. (Photo by Cool Revolution)

Now on to a broader question about who gets coverage in Wake Up To Politics:

What’s the Republican Party doing? They’re seldom mentioned in WUTP. — Tom T.

This is a fair question. For the most part, this newsletter pays particular attention to the White House and Congress, and with Democrats in control of both, I can see how it would seem like my coverage has been dominated by reporting on what Democrats are (and aren’t) doing. That’s mostly just a function of them being the party in the driver’s seat in terms of what will be on the agenda in Washington from day to day.

These past few weeks that’s been especially true, since I’ve devoted a lot of space to talking about the myriad intramural splits within the Democratic Party, in an effort to help you understand the massive pieces of legislation they’re attempting to shepherd through Congress. I’ve mentioned Republicans too, of course, but Tim is right that they’ve probably been featured more as secondary characters — mostly because the recent legislative push is taking place almost entirely over GOP opposition and without their input.

However, none of that is to say that the Republican Party nationwide is just sitting dormant. My focus is generally on Washington, where the GOP is fairly powerless to push any of its priorities — but Republicans as a whole wield much more power at the state level than Democrats. That has resulted in a flurry of consequential pieces of legislation being implemented in states across the country, including restrictions on abortions, voting access, COVID-19 vaccine mandates, critical race theory, tech companies, and more.

Over the past decade, Republicans have repeatedly bested Democrats in state legislative and gubernatorial races across the map — successes that have won the party dividends in allowing them to implement their agenda from state houses, even if they’re locked out of power in Washington (where it is often harder for majorities to shepherd laws through anyways).

A closing thought: From my vantage point, at least, I don’t think the fact that Democrats are getting more coverage in WUTP is an example of biasing one party over another (when Republicans were in control in Washington, they were certainly the ones getting more coverage). But I think it is an example of biasing federal news over news from the states — and that’s something I’d like to get better at. With Washington at a standstill, the most impactful bills are often coming out of the state houses, and they are certainly worthy of more coverage in this newsletter in order to give you a fuller view of what both parties are doing across the country.

The 1874 cartoon in which the Republican Party were symbolized as an elephant for the first time. Democrats were represented as a fox. (Cartoon by Thomas Nast / Harper’s Magazine)

Do you have a question on American politics that you want answered? Email me at gabe@wakeuptopolitics.com and your question might get featured in a future issue of the newsletter.


All times Eastern, unless otherwise noted.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will receive their daily intelligence briefing at 10 a.m. and have lunch together at 12 p.m.

At 1 p.m., Biden will meet with a group of top business leaders and CEOs to discuss the debt ceiling. At 2:30 p.m., Harris will meet with the Council of Presidents of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, better known as the “Divine Nine,” a network of historically Black fraternities and sororities. (Harris is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a “Divine Nine” sorority.)

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will travel to Detroit, Michigan, today. At 8 p.m., he will speak at a naturalization ceremony during the halftime of the Detroit Pistons-San Antonio Spurs NBA game, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will hold her daily press briefing at 12:30 p.m.

U.S. public health officials will hold a press briefing at 3 p.m. on the COVID-19 response. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, White House chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci, and White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients will participate.

The Senate will convene at 10 a.m. and resume consideration of the nomination of Sarah Merriam to be a U.S. District Judge for the District of Connecticut. At 11:30 a.m., the chamber will hold a cloture vote to advance Merriam’s nomination.

At around 2:15 p.m., the Senate will vote on Merriam’s confirmation. The chamber is then scheduled to hold a cloture vote to advance S. 1301, the House-passed bill to suspend the debt ceiling through December 16, 2022. The measure is not expected to receive the 60 votes it would need to advance.

The House is out for a “Committee Work Week” and isn’t scheduled to hold any floor votes until October 19.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing at 2 p.m. on H.R. 4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The House-passed measure would restore parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 struck down by the Supreme court, including the requirement for certain states to pre-clear changes to their voting laws with the federal government.

Democratic witnesses will include Kristen Clarke, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil rights. Republican witnesses will include Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing at 1 p.m. on misuse of assistance funds during the U.S. war in Afghanistan, featuring testimony from John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.


The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments at 10 a.m. in United States v. Zubaydah, a suit brought by Abu Zubaydah, a former associate of Osama bin Laden who has been detained at Guantanamo Bay since 2003.

Zubaydah was previously at a CIA “dark site” in Poland, and is seeking to compel the U.S. to hand over information on his CIA detention to the Polish government, which is conducting a criminal investigation. (The European Court on Human Rights ruled in 2018 that the U.S. treatment of Zubaydah in Poland amounted to torture.)

The U.S. has cited the “state secrets” privilege in refusing to disclose most of the documents requested by Zubaydah, arguing that their release would compromise national security. A district court judge sided with the government, while the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Zubaydah. The Supreme Court will now hear arguments to make a final ruling.

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