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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Democrats find themselves in a political and potentially catastrophic economic quagmire as Republicans stand firm on denying them any help in raising the federal debt ceiling.

Why it matters: The Democrats are technically right — the debt comes, in part, from past spending by President Trump and his predecessors, not only President Biden's new big-ticket programs. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is saddling them with the public relations challenge of making that distinction during next year's crucial midterms.

  • Just as he did by delaying the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland, McConnell is creating his own justification. He insists Democrats have to raise the ceiling themselves, since they control not only the White House but both chambers of Congress.
  • Never mind that Democrats helped GOP lawmakers suspend the debt ceiling three times during the Trump administration, including to help pay for a $2 trillion tax cut McConnell shepherded through a Republican Congress and onto the Republican president's desk, as well as coronavirus relief bills that cost more than $3 trillion.
  • The risk now — however remote — is that the federal government will default on its debt. Since that would cause irreparable damage to the economy and global financial markets, Democrats are unlikely to let that occur — ultimately forcing them to do what McConnell wants.

As Axios' Lachlan Markay and Hans Nichols reported Sunday, conservative groups are preparing huge ad-buys going after vulnerable House Democrats over tax increases and other revenue measures in Biden's massive $3.5 trillion infrastructure spending bill.

  • The Democrats themselves are divided on the current spending, only adding to the confusion that voters confront now and as they weigh congressional candidates next fall.
  • "Progressives are demanding the centrists support the $3.5 trillion, Democrat-only bill before the progressives vote to pass the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package that's already passed the Senate," Markay and Nichols wrote.

Senate Democrats are making their case, but their Republican colleagues have yet to offer any hope of blocking McConnell's plan.

  • Sen. Angus King (I-Maine): "It's exactly like charging something on your credit card, and then not paying the credit card bill when it comes. ... This is to pay for spending that many of them voted for over the last several years."
  • Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.): "I have been saying we should [raise the debt ceiling] in reconciliation and I continue to believe that." Kaine said he doesn't know why Democratic leaders are so adamant about getting Republicans to vote for it.
  • Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.): “I think he’s handling it perfectly,” referring to McConnell.
  • Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.): "Every other time the debt ceiling has been raised, it involves bipartisan discussion on how to get spending under control. ... There should be discussions of how to get spending under control — not full speed ahead with another few trillion."

Go deeper

Democrats pushing Biden to suspend federal gas tax

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Centrist Democrats are pushing President Biden to suspend the federal gas tax as a way of showing concern about inflation.

Why it matters: It's the strongest response yet from Democrats as Republicans make inflation a key part of their 2022 campaign messaging — but so far it's largely coming from candidates, not party leaders in Washington.

The lawmakers playing up infrastructure the most

Expand chart
Data: Quorum; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Both of the Democrats' vulnerable Arizona senators have been some of the most active lawmakers in hyping "infrastructure" in their press releases, newsletters, tweets and Facebook posts.

Why it matters: Democrats are hopeful their successes on roads, bridges — and, possibly, expanding the social safety net — will lessen losses they're expecting in the 2022 midterms. The social media activity has been tracked since President Biden signed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package into law.

Nov 30, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Conservative group targets Biden court pick ahead of Mississippi abortion case

A screenshot from an ad targeting Dale Ho. Courtesy: Judicial Crisis Network

A conservative group is targeting Dale Ho, President Biden’s judicial nominee to serve on the Southern District Court of New York, with a six-figure ad buy — launching the first TV campaign against a Biden court pick.

Why it matters: The Supreme Court is set to hear a Mississippi abortion law case on Wednesday, and conservatives and progressives are bracing for the political fallout from additional legal showdowns, as well as a battle over the president’s effort to fill some 70 vacancies throughout the federal judiciary.

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