Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appears more determined than ever to hold the Republican line from breaking on the debt ceiling.
In an interview with Punchbowl News, the Kentucky Republican fired a warning shot to Democrats as he dug in further on a view he's publicly expressed since late July.
"It's their obligation. They should step up. It's hard being in the majority. They are the ones who will raise the debt limit," he said, adding, "Do you guys think I'm bluffing?"
McConnell insisted that the US must never default on its debt payments and pointed back to his previous support of raising the ceiling to cover spending that Congressional Republicans and Democrats had struck deals on. He said that wasn't the case this year as Democrats passed a $1.9 trillion stimulus law along party-lines. They're also drafting another spending package aimed at shoring up the social safety net.
"So the only issue is, whose responsibility is it to do it? A Democratic president, a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate," he told Punchbowl News.
McConnell's warning threatens to amplify a perilous showdown between Republicans and Democrats on renewing the nation's ability to pay off its bills, known as the debt ceiling. The Treasury Department is making emergency cash payments to keep federal operations running, buying lawmakers some extra time.
But if Congress fails to agree on renewing the debt ceiling on time, experts say that could rattle financial markets and derail the economic recovery since the US's ability to make payments on its $28 trillion national debt would be halted.
Democrats are pressuring Republicans to raise the debt ceiling alongside them, as GOP lawmakers did three times under the Trump administration.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently ruled out including a debt ceiling increase into their social spending bill. That legislation is traveling through the reconciliation process which only requires a simple majority vote and permits Democrats to go around fierce GOP resistance to the legislation.
A recent memo from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service indicated President Donald Trump added $5.4 trillion onto the national debt since the debt ceiling was last suspended in July 2019 through the end of his administration in January 2021. The analysis has been circulating among Democratic lawmakers.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer cited the figures on Monday as he tore into Republican resistance on the issue. "Let me be clear: taking the debt hostage and playing games with the full faith and credit of the United States is reckless, irresponsible, and will harm every single American," he said in a Senate floor speech. "It is a complete non-starter."
The debt ceiling is the legal limit that the Treasury Department can borrow to maintain federal operations authorized by Congress. Raising the debt limit doesn't green-light new federal spending, it only allows the US to pay off existing spending.
Democrats may add the debt ceiling provision onto an emergency spending bill the White House wants Congress to approve this month to finance relief efforts after Hurricane Ida and wildfires in the western US, in conjunction with funding to avert government shutdown at the end of September. That tactic could persuade some Republicans to support the legislation.
But 46 Senate Republicans signed a letter in August pledging to not go along with Democrats on raising the debt ceiling. It's also unclear whether there would be enough Republican votes in the House.