The debt drama that masked a brutal power struggle: Schumer vs. McConnell

“Shadow boxing,” said Senator Kevin Cramer (RN.D.), describing Schumer’s and McConnell’s latest long-range confrontation. “Because they don’t talk so much, it doesn’t seem.”

The majority and minority leaders constantly seek advantage in the longest-serving 50-50 Senate in U.S. history, and their cage battle over raising the debt ceiling is only the latest battle since McConnell refused to have the chamber organized after Schumer took Over. Their ice-cold relationship lacks the crackle of McConnell’s quarrel with former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid – but McConnell is using increasingly harsh tactics to make Schumer’s life difficult, given the tight chamber’s gap and the tension between the party’s diverse ideological wings his rival.

Both Liberals and Conservatives were initially unhappy with the debt settlement, with the latter complaining that McConnell had given in and the former frustrated that Schumer was not pushing harder for a long-term solution that would deprive Republicans of leverage. But Schumer looked a lot more like a winner Thursday night as Republicans battled among themselves to take over the deal McConnell had made and the final vote nearly derailed.

“Now he’s the one who’s in a caucus, trying to get people together to get their voices together,” said Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.). The next collision in December, she predicted, will not be about “what he allows. He is not in the majority.”

Regardless of the votes he cast Thursday night to move the debt deal forward, McConnell’s rationale is clear: He is foregoing any advantage he can free himself from Schumer in order to win a single seat and recapture the reins of the Senate, even if doing so brings the nation closer to an economically crippling default. Schumer’s job is more difficult: he tries to juggle the competing imperatives, hold his own against McConnell, and hold his faction together as they battle over how big President Joe Biden’s agenda should be.

In this particular conflict, McConnell tried to get Schumer to use the obscure technique of balancing the budget to raise the debt ceiling, forcing the Democrats to raise the ceiling to a certain number. Schumer turned it down, and despite McConnell’s offer for a temporary hike, conditional on the debt ceiling being raised again in December, Democrats say they will not vote for reconciliation even then.

“Chuck Schumer won that chicken,” said Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a leading critic of McConnell’s strategy. “I wish the Republicans hadn’t blinked. I wish we hadn’t.”

In part, it’s because the Democrats are doing everything they can to deny McConnell’s orders. Several senators have said privately that the Democrats are holding the line against reconciliation because McConnell wants to. He also urged them to lower the debt ceiling from a spending bill last week – and once the Democrats make that adjustment, they don’t want to repeat it.

When it comes to McConnell trying to run the Senate, “he can try, but he won’t,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

“Mitch McConnell has so infected the debt ceiling issue with political self-interest,” said Blumenthal. “He wants to be the majority leader. That is his goal. “

Of course, Schumer also wants to remain majority leader in 2023. But above all, he is trying to use the temporary debt brake to finally reach an agreement on the party-affiliated social spending law, which has sparked a feud between his centrists and his liberals.

But Schumer’s screams over the recent confrontation with McConnell angered Manchin, a vote he cannot alienate. When Schumer criticized the Republicans for imminent insolvency and praised his faction for saving the country, Manchin buried his heads in his hands. Then he spoke to Schumer about what he saw as inappropriate remarks.

“That was no way to turn it off. We just disagree. I would have done it differently,” said Manchin.

Some Democrats busted McConnell’s offer on Wednesday before meeting privately as a caucus, and then stepped out of that meeting to declare that they had defeated their eternal enemy. After Schumer told the Democrats that McConnell “blinked” Wednesday afternoon, Duckworth said he was able to get his faction on board with his strategy.

“This is not a solution,” said Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “That allows us to focus on getting the president’s agenda done.”

Democrats must act quickly to avoid being dragged back into fiscal quicksand. That’s because the GOP leader struggled so hard on Thursday to get his conference to accept a tentative relaxation, advisors say he has a broader strategy in mind.

McConnell sought to tie the debt ceiling to the December 3rd government funding expiry and to drain power from the Democratic majorities by setting new deadlines for them. Some of his Conservative members may not have liked the offer he made to Schumer this week, but it brought him closer to that goal.

With Democrats taking three scheduled breaks ahead of the new debt deadline, it won’t be long before McConnell presses them again to raise the ceiling through reconciliation. Not to mention the Democrats had to set a figure of $ 480 billion to increase this week – and possibly the next.

“McConnell knows exactly what he’s doing,” said Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Chairman of Conference No. 3. “You will owe the debt.”

Several other middle senators are exhausted from the back and forth over who won the debt war. Another deadline is imminent, and both Schumer and McConnell disagree on how to then increase the borrowing cap.

Many Democrats are willing to legally ditch the entire debt ceiling idea. But until then, they’re ready to take a breather after McConnell offered a lifeline that Schumer grabbed no matter how messy their parliamentary mano-a-mano got.

“I know a lot of my colleagues say the other side gave in,” said Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.). “I think rationality won.”

Caitlin Emma contributed to this report.

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