Liberals talk 'nuclear option' on debt hike
By: Manu Raju and Burgess Everett
October 8, 2013 07:48 PM EDT
Senate Republicans began to warn Tuesday they would filibuster Democrats’ plan to raise the U.S. debt limit later this week.
Liberal senators’ response? Gut the filibuster.
Liberals said Tuesday that there may be no other way out of a debt ceiling crisis than to invoke — or at least threaten to employ — the so-called nuclear option, an enormously contentious move that would allow the party to raise the national borrowing limit with 51 votes rather than 60.
Such a move would prompt howls of outrage from Republicans and could have dramatic implications for the future of the Senate. But it would allow Senate Democrats to pass a bill raising the borrowing limit through 2014 and shift the burden to the House GOP before a potentially devastating default on the $16.7 trillion national debt on Oct. 17.
Liberal Democrats vow to ratchet up pressure on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to take the unprecedented step if Republicans refuse to give their party at least six votes to overcome a filibuster ahead of the first key debt ceiling vote, likely Saturday.
“The rules will have to change,” Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin said when asked how Democrats should respond if the GOP blocks the debt ceiling bill. “If we don’t [have the votes to break a filibuster], then I think it’s time to recognize the new realities that I have been talking about for a number of years. And the reality is that this ain’t your grandma’s Senate.”
Whether such a move will actually come to pass — after Reid threatened the nuclear option twice this year — remains to be seen. But the prospect underscores the grim realities on Capitol Hill that the two sides are stuck at an unbreakable impasse with no clear way out of a growing economic crisis and a government shutdown, now in its second week.
Democratic leaders were mum on the nuclear option possibility on Tuesday, but they wouldn’t rule it out as a potential backup plan.
“I don’t have any comment on that,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat, was optimistic that there would be 60 votes for a straight debt ceiling increase without any policy prescriptions, particularly as the deadline gets closer. “I can’t imagine our Republican colleagues — many of the mainstream conservatives — at the end of the day will let the government default.”
But asked whether Democrats would change the filibuster rules to pass a debt ceiling bill if they were to fall short of 60 votes, Schumer would only say: “That’s where we’re leaving it today.”
A Reid spokesman declined to comment about the nuclear option.
While Reid expressed confidence Tuesday he would win the votes to defeat a filibuster threat, GOP leaders warned that they would prevent a floor debate from even occurring if Democrats refused to entertain spending cuts or potential Republican amendments.
“I would encourage people — if they are not going to give us any amendments or any opportunity to do anything to address the debt — that we shouldn’t allow them to get this thing on the floor,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 3 in GOP leadership.
And if Thune’s warning becomes reality, the pressure for Reid to go nuclear will certainly intensify from the left.
“Every instance of obstruction, exploiting and abusing the 60-vote threshold is additional evidence in favor of changing the Senate rules,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “The more that is at stake … the more the abuse of the rule argues in favor of changing it.”
In this Congress, Reid has repeatedly threatened to use the nuclear option: an arcane process that would allow him to change the rules with just 51 Democratic votes, rather than the much-higher threshold of 67 votes that are needed to overhaul the rules under regular order. Both times, Reid backed off his threat after cutting bipartisan deals to avert a major showdown over the future of the institution.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and some Democratic critics have repeatedly warned that employing the nuclear option would effectively turn the Senate — where the minority party can derail legislation through the filibuster — into a majority-rules institution like the House. Future Senate majorities could cite the precedent to continually weaken the filibuster in order to pass controversial bills with just 51 votes, rather than winning bipartisan support to cut off debate with 60 votes.
And in the current fight, Republicans say employing that tactic would help cement their argument that Democrats are being unreasonable amid the showdown.
“I think it would reinforce the public perception that they are unwilling to negotiate or compromise,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “I think they are starting to feel some pain on that position.”
But Reid, furious at stall tactics employed by McConnell, has repeatedly warned that the nuclear option is still on the table, despite reaching the bipartisan deals earlier this year. And with the country facing an economic crisis and relations between the two parties at rock-bottom, many Democrats said Tuesday that invoking the nuclear option may be the only way out of the intractable fiscal battles. It also would be in line with Reid’s hardball tactics over the past two weeks.
“I’m certainly an advocate for ending the paralysis of the Senate,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a longtime proponent of gutting the filibuster. “I think we have to continue to look at how the lurching from crisis to crisis is doing deep damage to the economy.”
“If the Republicans are going to continue to obstruct, and make it impossible to address the needs of the American people, then I think we have to think about changing the rules,” said Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, a liberal independent senator who caucuses with Democrats.
The liberal demands came during another day of political brinkmanship that brought the two sides no closer to a resolution. At a news conference at the White House, Obama reiterated his call for House Speaker John Boehner to pass a debt ceiling increase and reopen the government with no strings attached. But Boehner has balked, calling for at least a negotiation as well as deficit cuts long sought by the House GOP.
Not wanting to relive the drama that in 2011 produced the first downgrade of U.S. debt before Washington eventually raised the debt ceiling, Obama and Reid have refused to negotiate with Boehner until he agrees to reopen the government and increase the borrowing limit.
And after a party lunch on Tuesday, GOP senators sounded like they were on the same page as Boehner — meaning it appeared that Democrats could fall short of the 60 votes to begin debate on a longer-term debt limit increase.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been a staunch critic of tea party tactics in the shutdown fight, said it made little sense to give Democrats 60 votes to advance a clean debt ceiling increase.
“It doesn’t gain anything to ping-pong it back to the House,” McCain said. “If we voted for cloture, then it would be sent back to the House, and the House would not agree.”
But McCain quickly called on his own party to clearly lay out what it wants from a negotiation with the White House — rather than just simply call for talks.
“We need to have a negotiating position,” McCain said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘We want to negotiate.’ It’s something else to say, ‘Here’s what we want.’”
But other than Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), hardly any other Republicans have stepped forward to say they’d vote to start debate on a long-term increase of the national debt ceiling without any strings attached.
“I can’t imagine there’s a lot of interest, personally, in voting for a clean debt ceiling that doesn’t in some way address the problems that our nation faces,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said the only thing he’d support would be a three-month increase in the national debt ceiling — if Democrats agree to a yearlong delay of the implementation of Obamacare.
“That’s about all I’ll do,” Chambliss said.
While some Democrats like Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said changing filibuster rules wouldn’t help persuade the House to pass a clean debt ceiling increase, some said it may be a last resort.
“If it comes to that, it comes to that,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). “And we won’t be the same country again for several generations.”