Debt Limit: As America Loses, 3 ‘Winners’ Emerge
Policy + Politics

Debt Limit: As America Loses, 3 ‘Winners’ Emerge


The country, the world economy, your stock portfolio, your job security, your mortgage application, your Social Security application, and—heck—almost anything touched in some way by the federal government could lose from the current budget and debt ceiling battle.

But, amazingly, three senators appear to be coming out of this fiasco as winners. The Senate is expected on Friday to hold a procedural vote clearing the way to pass a temporary spending bill that prevents much of the government from closing on Oct. 1. Their bill would restore funding for Obamacare, something that House Republicans tried to eliminate in their bill passed last week to keep the government open.


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Texas Republican Ted Cruz are on opposing sides over this issue, but here is why each seem to be succeeding (so far):

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) – Few others have emerged from this crisis with more authority than Reid, who seems to have evolved into a quasi-LBJ “Master of the Senate” with his command of procedure and ability to hold his caucus together.

The Nevada Democrat has skillfully laid the blame on Tea Partiers for a possible shutdown, while specifically praising Republican senators such as Arizona’s John McCain for their respectful opposition. His control—thus far—of the chamber’s schedule seems like a marked contrast to the chaos in the House, where it is unclear what will happen if a temporary spending bill is returned that protects Obamacare.

“Every hour that ticks by puts us closer to a shutdown,” Reid said on Thursday, noting that he would like to have already returned an amending temporary spending bill back to the other side of Capitol Hill.

By casting himself as a lawmaker who plays by the rules, Reid has also embraced the concept of following the rule of law, which—like it or not—since 2010 includes Obamacare.

This is an issue where the American people are on Reid’s side. According to the new CBS/New York Times poll, 56 percent of the country thinks Congress should “uphold” Obamacare “and make it work.” It’s one of the few issues in polling about Obamacare that enjoys overwhelming support from independents.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) – Cruz can be a social leper to many of his Republican colleagues. His quixotic quest to defund Obamacare can fail in the Senate. But the freshman Texas senator is emerging from this fiasco looking like Grade-A presidential beef to his Tea Party fans.

Cruz occupied the national stage for the past month. He helped goad House Republicans into passing a bill that defunds Obamacare in return for approving expenditures that keep the government open through Dec. 15. Cruz then spoke against Obamacare this week for 21 hours, and plans to use a filibuster threat on Friday to stop the Senate from passing an amended bill with a simple majority that protects the health insurance program.

Conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh praised his tenacity, regardless of whether Cruz succeeds legislatively.

“Ted Cruz is fighting for freedom in the greatest tradition of American freedom fighters,” Limbaugh opined on Wednesday. “He's doing exactly what he was elected to do. He's fighting for free markets. He's fighting for individual choice.  He's fighting against statists and statism. He's fighting for the American people, even those who don't know that he's fighting for them.”

Similar compliments have come from Fox News talker Sean Hannity, Blaze firebrand Glen Beck, and other media commentators with loyal Republican audiences.

It will be worth monitoring how much of a bump Cruz gets from his initiative. A recent CNN poll places him sixth in a possible 2016 GOP presidential field with 7 percent, while Public Policy Polling has him fifth in the key primary state of New Hampshire with 10 percent of the vote.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) - Once again, McConnell has set himself up to be the adult in this confrontation, just as he did in the 2011 debt ceiling showdown and last winter’s fiscal cliff crisis.

Until recently, McConnell looked more pre-occupied with defending his seat next year from Tea Party primary challenger Matt Bevin. But McConnell seized the reins inside the Senate this week to block a brash effort by Cruz to bully other Republicans into filibustering any spending bill that doesn’t defund Obamacare.

Opposing Tea Party types carries a substantial risk, but he displayed his grasp of legislative nuances to overcome the blunt rhetoric of Cruz’s 21-hour talk-a-thon that lasted until Wednesday afternoon. McConnell knows that in the event of a stalemate—which is what Cruz and House Republicans are effectively pushing—the Obamacare health insurance exchanges open as scheduled on Oct. 1.


“I just don’t happen to think filibustering a bill that defunds Obamacare is the best route to defunding Obamacare,” McConnell said. “All it does is shut down the government and keep Obamacare funded. And none of us want that.”

McConnell was careful not to personally attack Cruz, but merely made a factual statement about strategy.

 “These relationships have all the delicacy of a French minuet,” said Rutgers University political scholar Ross Baker. “These are very, very dainty, mincing steps that these people take to avoid antagonizing any element of the electorate when they’re up for reelection. And I think McConnell has proven himself a very adroit dance master.”

Why It’s Easy to Find Winners in the Senate – This is ultimately a fight between Obama and House Republicans, one in which the Senate can claim to have been entirely reasonable by standing against both a shutdown and a default.

Both the president and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) could take the blame for an economic meltdown if no deals materialize in the next few days on spending, or if we reach Oct. 17 and the government—unable to legally borrow—starts to default on its obligations.

The legislative calendar is set up so that the House might have to accept or reject the temporary spending measure from the Senate. That bill is expected to restore funding for Obamacare and finance the government through Nov. 15, at which point Boehner faces the choice of sticking his caucus or forging a deal.

The speaker is holding his cards close to his vest. “We have no interest in seeing a government shutdown,” he said Thursday. “There will be options available to us.

Obama has a 44.2 percent approval rating, according to the average of polls tracked by RealClearPolitics. His favorability last plunged to that level after the 2011 debt ceiling showdown, where a crisis was narrowly averted. But two years ago, Obama was still willing to negotiate with Republicans.

He now refuses to bargain over “the full faith and credit” of the United States. If this stonewalling triggers another financial catastrophe, this will be a red line that will easily come back to haunt Obama.