When Republican leadership finally caved on the debt ceiling in 2014, Democrats hoped that President Barack Obama had finally convinced the GOP that the debt ceiling couldn’t be used as an extortion device. But as the federal government inches closer to the debt limit once again, Republicans are gearing up for another fight—and this could be the biggest one yet.
In an interview with Politico, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that the GOP expects the president to negotiate over the debt limit. “I always think a debt ceiling is a good tool to carry something,” he said. “I hope we can add something to it." McConnell isn’t committing himself to a debt ceiling fight but he’s certainly indicating that he wants to negotiate over it—which is meaningful for two reasons.
First, if Republicans had learned their lesson from the last fight, McConnell wouldn’t be spoiling for another one. But conservatives see the debt ceiling as a useful mechanism to extract policy concessions from the president. And that’s not an entirely unrealistic position, since it worked in the past (see sequestration), although it is irresponsible.
Second, in the Politico interview McConnell admitted that he should have surrendered earlier on the funding fight over the Department of Homeland Security in March. That time, conservatives demanded that a DHS funding bill also block Obama’s executive action on immigration. Senate Democrats repeatedly filibustered, though, and the GOP eventually had to cave and accept a clean funding bill. McConnell’s admission was a rare moment of reflection for the GOP; he didn't offer a similar acknowledgment on the debt ceiling. To be fair, the debt ceiling deadline is still months away, so McConnell has no reason to pick a fight with his right flank over that issue now. The more he gears up the base, though, the angrier they will be when he eventually backs down.
And McConnell will back down. If we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that McConnell understands that magnitude of breaching the debt ceiling. That would be disastrous for the U.S. economy and McConnell won’t let that happen. But Republicans, now in control of the upper chamber, find themselves in the strongest political position they’ve had during Obama’s presidency. They’re going to use that political leverage to sway public opinion and try to force Democrats to negotiate. It won’t work. But it could make for some anxious moments later this year.