McConnell, the Senate GOP is happy to shut down debt limit talks – for now

Senate Republicans say they are happy to end the fight over raising the debt ceiling and cede negotiations to their House colleagues — at least for now.

After a bitter end-of-year battle to pass the omnibus package of government spending; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is using much of the political capital to help Democrats raise the debt ceiling in 2021; and the Republicans who take control of the House, McConnell and members of the GOP caucus in the Senate neither need nor want to conduct the current negotiations.

And they believe House Republicans are in a solid position to win concessions that members of the Democratic-controlled upper chamber cannot make.

They applauded McConnell’s words earlier this week that Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Republicans would be the ones to deal directly with the White House in debt negotiations.

“The public is on the side of doing something. … Until we figure out what we’re going to do, I’m glad the House is taking this on. I think there will be many of us in the Senate who will welcome that,” Sen. Mike Brown (R-Ind.) told reporters.

“We haven’t taken the leadership here to do anything about it, and I think they’re clear. … It’s going to be a tough negotiation there because someone’s ox is going to be gored along the way,” he added.

But Senate Republicans are still watching the negotiations closely, waiting to see whether McCarthy can rally his slim majority around a deal and whether that deal is acceptable.

Much of the reason GOP senators are retiring is simple political reality. Republicans control the House and thus have a better chance of shifting their priorities in that chamber.

But some of it is political capital. After years of McConnell taking the lead in negotiations, the Kentucky Republican has spent much of his last year and a half pushing through a general spending bill last month and raising the debt ceiling at the end of 2021.

Both deals have caused backlash and frustration in the Senate GOP, especially the battle over the debt ceiling in 2021. McConnell said in October that he would not help Democrats raise the borrowing limit again and urged them to do so by reconciling the budget. However, he backtracked on those remarks and gathered the necessary votes to do just that less than two months later.

Given that history, Republicans are happy to let McCarthy serve as chief negotiator in this situation and try his hand at securing concessions from Democrats.

“I think the reason he took that position this time is because he understands that with a Republican House and a Democratic White House, you’re not going to get anything through the Senate that hasn’t been signed by the Republican House or be ready to get a signature from a Democratic president,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said of McConnell.

“This is divided government. … At the end of the day, I think that’s where the negotiations should start,” Thune added.

Still, there remains consternation among Senate GOP members about how their House colleagues will ultimately handle these talks.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters this week that he doesn’t “know what page they’re on” when asked if he’s on the same wavelength as the House GOP.

As part of his attempt to win over opponents in his party to win the gavel, McCarthy promised to make spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. But House Republicans have not said where those cuts should come from, and there is reportedly disagreement among members.

Adding to the uncertainty, McCarthy — unlike McConnell, with whom the president served in the Senate — has not made deals over the years with Biden. However, he set a marker Thursday by telling Donald Trump Jr. that Republicans “won’t touch Medicare or Social Security” amid speculation they may try to do just that.

When Biden and McCarthy will begin substantive discussions remains very much up in the air. Although Biden has indicated he is willing to sit down with the newly minted GOP chairman, the White House has insisted the debt ceiling is not up for negotiation.

Speaking in Virginia on Thursday, Biden targeted House Republicans who are calling for reform of the pair of entitlement programs, criticizing them for creating “chaos” with their efforts.

“They want to cut your Social Security, Medicare. Now, that’s God’s truth,” Biden said. “It’s almost unbelievable.”

The president’s call was supported by other Democratic Party leaders, but not all rank-and-file members believe it is realistic.

Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.), who met with McCarthy on Wednesday, argued that the White House position is “unreasonable”. But the West Virginia centrist has made it clear that he also won’t accept cuts to Social Security or Medicare.

Although the ball is out of their hands for now, Senate GOP members say they believe their counterparts on the Capitol complex can strike a deal that wins support in the upper chamber.

“I don’t think we’re going to have a default,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R.D.) told The Hill. “I think there are enough people who understand how important this is.”

“It’s a matter of discussion about how we go about reducing the amount of debt we take on,” Rounds added. “It’s yet to be determined what’s palatable to them, but I think there are some people who would like the opportunity to have the discussion right now — and now is the best time to have that discussion.”

Aris Foley contributed.

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