Debt Ceiling

Ted Cruz Could Force a Debt Default All by Himself


Senator Ted Cruz talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Sept. 25, 2013

Photograph by J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Senator Ted Cruz talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Sept. 25, 2013

Here’s a cheerful thought as Congress remains deadlocked over the debt ceiling and the hours tick away toward default: Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who basically forced the shutdown and whose own private polls have convinced him that it has been a glorious success, at this point could probably force a default and global economic calamity on his own—if he were so inclined. The Treasury Department says U.S. borrowing authority will expire on Thursday.

How could this happen? Because the Senate can move quickly when necessary, but only by unanimous consent. Let’s say Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) strike a deal today (that’s looking unlikely). Cruz surely won’t like it and has said repeatedly, “I will do everything necessary and anything possible to defund Obamacare.” If he’s true to his word, he could drag out the proceedings past Thursday and possibly well beyond. “If a determined band of nut jobs wants to take down the global economy, they could do it,” says Jim Manley, a former top staffer for Reid. “Under Senate rules, we are past the point of no return—there’s not anything Reid or McConnell could do about it.”

If Cruz is truly determined to block or delay any deal that does not touch Obamacare, here’s how he’d do it: The hypothetical Reid/McConnell bill would probably be introduced as an amendment to the “clean” debt-ceiling raise that Democrats introduced—and Republicans defeated—last week. Reid voted against cloture on the motion to proceed to that bill, a procedural tactic that allows him to reconsider the bill later on. Let’s say he does so by 5 p.m. Monday. There would need to be a cloture vote on the motion to proceed. Cruz would dissent, but he wouldn’t be able to round up 41 votes for a filibuster.

That wouldn’t be his only weapon, however. The real killer is that Senate rules stipulate there must be 30 hours of post-cloture debate, unless senators agree unanimously to waive it. Reid and McConnell would want unanimous consent to move quickly, but Cruz could refuse, thereby forcing 30 hours of debate. This would drag things out until Tuesday at 11:30 p.m. Then there would be a vote on the motion to proceed (requiring a simple majority), followed by an intervening day, assuming Cruz withheld his consent to vote earlier. So now we’re looking at a Thursday cloture vote on the bill itself, followed by another 30 hours of post-cloture debate that would blow right past the Treasury deadline. Finally, sometime on Friday, there would be a vote on the bill and on the amendment to swap in Reid/McConnell.

Only then could the bill proceed to the House—which hardly owns a sterling track record of speeding through controversial bills as the global economy teeters on the precipice. One bright spot is that the House can move much faster than the Senate, in spite of its caucus of debt-ceiling deniers. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) could waive all points of order and take the bill straight to the floor within hours, as he has done often on shutdown-related bills.

But by this time, it might be too late. “Bottom line,” says Manley, “the Senate runs by consent.” And if Cruz decides to withhold that consent, then all bets are off.

Green_190
Green is senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.

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