The Senate's recent legislative successes, from approving a handful of presidential nominees to passing an immigration bill, showed that a handful of longtime Republican deal-makers may be getting back into the game—a move that could change the players who negotiate this fall's fiscal battles.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., led the group by crafting a compromise on the president’s outstanding nominations and, in the process, averting a major showdown over filibuster rules. He was joined by Republicans like Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire; Bob Corker of Tennessee; Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; John Hoeven of North Dakota; Johnny Isakson of Georgia; Rob Portman of Ohio; and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who voted in favor of moving ahead with the president’s nomination for the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau.
“It means more and more people are getting engaged and trying to rise to the times in which they live. I think it bodes well for the Senate,” said Graham. “I’m really pleased with the way things are moving in terms of people stepping out and leading at a time when we needed some leadership.”
Five out of those eight senators voted in favor of the Senate’s immigration bill in late June; many are also meeting with the President Obama’s chief of staff to try to lay the groundwork for a fiscal bargain, or at least, find a baseline, bipartisan way to define the country’s budgetary issues.
Now, that this group has shown willingness to compromise with Democrats and craft two bargains outside of the typical channels of Senate leadership, the question is whether some combination of them can do the same with the debt ceiling in October or November when it will need to be raised—or if they’d even want to tackle that challenge.
The debt ceiling and the spending questions it raises, after all, are far more central to the Republican ideology and more sensitive for the party base than, say, filibuster rules or an overhaul of immigration laws. That’s why it will be interesting to see if this new mix of moderate or pragmatic Republicans takes the helm of the debt-ceiling negotiations, or if that will once again fall to the usual players from past fiscal battles, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell or House Speaker John Boehner.
McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden cut the last three fiscal deals, including the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts in 2010; the extension of the payroll-tax holiday; and the fiscal-cliff legislation, which passed the Senate in the early hours of New Year’s Day.
But, with McConnell facing a reelection battle in 2014 and with his current strained relationship with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, it’s not clear if he will jump into any debt-ceiling negotiations with the same gusto. “If Reid and McConnell are not getting along well, it may be the case that the place functions better with a wider group of people doing the negotiating,” said Sarah Binder, a congressional expert and senior fellow at Brookings Institution.
So far, few senators among the newly anointed GOP deal-makers want the responsibility of solving the debt-ceiling fight. It’s months away and too early to build such expectations, even for those who enjoy the limelight. “I think projecting forward at this moment, it’s too early to tell. Do I want to solve the fiscal issues? Yes. Do I plan to be involved in the fiscal issues? Yes,” said Corker. “So far, there is not a process yet to get us to a conclusion that would be satisfactory.”
The debt-ceiling battle and its surrounding fiscal fights like sequestration will start to dominate the conversation by September. If anyone needs any evidence, look no further than Reid and his leadership team; they took to the microphone Thursday afternoon, just after the Senate announced a bipartisan deal to stave off an increase in student-loan rates.
Their message was a decidedly partisan warning about the coming fiscal battles. “Tying spending cuts to a default is playing with fire,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. This was hardly a kumbaya moment after a productive week of very bipartisan work, but it was a foreshadowing that the debt-ceiling battle may be as hard as or harder to overcome than any of the Senate’s recent legislative battles.