The Senate was in self-congratulatory mode on Thursday night.
Eleven Republicans had just joined all 50 Democrats (and independents who caucus with Democrats) to end debate on a deal that would pay the country’s debt obligations through early December — preventing an economically catastrophic default.
Senators were milling around on the chamber floor, chatting. And in that moment, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer decided to absolutely let Republicans have it.
He called the possibility of defaulting on the nation’s debt “Republican manufactured.” Added Schumer: “Republicans played a dangerous and risky partisan game, and I am glad that their brinksmanship did not work.”
Then Schumer went directly after McConnell. “Despite immense opposition from Leader McConnell and members of his conference, our caucus held together and we pulled our country back from the cliff’s edge that Republicans tried to push us over,” he said.
As Schumer speaks, you can see West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat who has urged bipartisanship on the major legislative fights in Congress, begin to shake his head in disapproval. Then he puts his head in his hands. Finally, about halfway through Schumer’s comments, which run just over four minutes, Manchin gets up and leaves.
Context matters here. Schumer’s speech came after McConnell blinked in the standoff over raising the debt limit. McConnell had, not 24 hours earlier, proposed an off-ramp in the form of the very compromise that the Senate had just approved. Rather than playing chicken with the nation’s debt obligations, McConnell had provided a way to push the problem for another six weeks — in theory opening up the possibility of negotiations on a way to extend the debt ceiling for a longer period of time.
And McConnell and much of his leadership team — Roy Blunt of Missouri, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Thune of South Dakota — had ALL voted to end unlimited debate on the debt ceiling extension, providing the 61 votes that then allowed Democrats to pass the measure by simple majority.
For those Republicans — and Manchin — what Schumer did in his speech was tantamount to running in front of them and spiking the ball in their face. Showing them up at the very moment that they felt they had handed him at least a temporary win.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate at this time,” Manchin told reporters after Schumer’s speech. “We have to de-weaponize. You can’t be playing politics. None of us can — on both sides,” Manchin said. “Civility is gone.”
Thune said he directly confronted Schumer after the speech.” I thought it was totally out of line,” the South Dakota Republican explained. “I just thought it was an incredibly partisan speech after we had just helped him solve a problem. … I let him have it.”
There are those who will note that Republicans spent weeks holding the debt ceiling increase hostage to punish Schumer for his efforts to pass a massive social safety net bill with zero Republican input or votes. And those who, rightly, note that Democrats voted to increase the debt limit when Republicans were in control of the Senate and Donald Trump was president. And even those who point out that much of the need to raise the debt limit comes from Trump’s 2017 tax cut package.
But all also beside the point, which, politically speaking, is this: Voters know that Democrats are in charge of Congress and the White House. because of that, they expect Democrats to get things done for the country — whether it’s passing either (or both) of the hard and soft infrastructure bills or ensuring that the country doesn’t default on its debts.
Schumer’s speech — while it likely felt very good for him — makes doing those very things less likely, alienating both moderate Republicans (such as they exist in the Senate) and the likes of Manchin (and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema) who have made clear they want more comity with the GOP on these big pieces of legislation.
And Democrats badly need to start racking up legislative wins in advance of the 2022 election. Schumer’s speech made those odds just a bit longer.