With time running short and the danger of a national default growing, Democrats are hoping an unlikely savior will come to the rescue: Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). 

Democratic lawmakers say McConnell and other Senate Republicans are fooling themselves if they think Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is in a position to reach a debt ceiling deal with President Biden. 

They believe McCarthy is under tremendous pressure not to agree to any deal Democrats would accept because the House rules allow for one disappointed conservative to offer a motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair. 

“Senate Republicans are putting their heads in the sand if they think that the extremists in their party will have a change of heart,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, to reporters earlier this month.  

“If Kevin McCarthy is forced to choose between holding power in his Speakership or taking us closer to default, we know he’s going to choose default. The American people know that as well. House Republicans are on a path toward default. The question before us is will Senate Republicans take the wheel?” he said. 

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a leader of House progressives, has joined the growing chorus of Democrats pleading for McConnell to get involved.  

“I think time is starting to run out,” Jayapal warned. “I think Wall Street should be weighing in.” 

She told reporters that “reasonable Republicans” and McConnell need “to get involved and get people to understand that default on America would be terrible,” according to Punchbowl News. 

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., talk to reporters after meeting with President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of N.Y., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in Washington, about the debt ceiling. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Philip Wallach, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said McConnell has remained in the background in deference to the new GOP Speaker. But that could change, he added, if an agreement remains elusive and the threat of default creeps closer.   

“I think he’s trying to give McCarthy room to operate. And that’s professional courtesy and good partisan strategy,” Wallach said. “I don’t think that it necessarily means that he won’t be a big part of the final solution.” 

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) this week demonstrated why Democrats are nervous, saying his conservative colleagues “don’t feel like we should negotiate with our hostage,” and that “the one-person motion to vacate has given us the best version of Speaker McCarthy.”

But McConnell’s allies say Aguilar and Jayapal are misguided if they think the Senate GOP leader will override McCarthy.  

“I don’t think Mitch is going to get in the way of the Speaker because he knows if he does, that will undermine the Speaker’s ability to retain the Speakership. So until the president and the Speaker reach an agreement, I don’t see McConnell getting into the room,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who once served on McConnell’s Senate leadership team. 

More on the debt ceiling from The Hill:

Gregg argued that if McConnell cuts a deal with Biden instead of McCarthy, the deal would have a harder time passing the GOP-controlled House. 

“It would mean that the Speaker would have an even harder time selling whatever was agreed to to his caucus,” he said.  

Gregg said Democrats are calling for McConnell’s help in an effort to portray McCarthy as an unreasonable negotiator. 

“It’s politics,” he said. “They want to blame this on the Speaker.” 

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks to reporters concerning the debt ceiling negotiations on the steps of the Capitol, Thursday, May 25, 2023.

Jayapal’s comments caught the attention of some Senate Republican aides because the outspoken liberal leader is more likely to be quoted criticizing McConnell than beseeching his help.

But McConnell has his own right flank to worry about after Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) challenged his leadership position in November. McConnell won the race 36-10, but Senate conservatives sent a message that they weren’t happy with the direction of the GOP conference. 

Conservative senators were caught off guard when McConnell proposed in fall 2021 that Democrats could move legislation to raise the debt limit without having to face a GOP filibuster.

McConnell said at the time he made the offer so Democrats would fully own the decision to add hundreds of billions of dollars to the debt.  

“Democrats are simply voicing their expectations for something that already happened in the past to happen again,” one Senate Republican aide said of the calls by Aguilar and Jayapal to get involved in the debt limit talks. 

The GOP aide noted McConnell initially took a hard line against raising the debt limit while Biden was in office, sending a letter to the president warning, “I will not be a party to any future effort to mitigate the consequences of Democratic mismanagement,” and that Democratic leaders “cannot invent another crisis and ask for my help.” 

“I get that McConnell doesn’t want to be the main guy in this fight,” the aide said. “But Jayapal wouldn’t be calling on somebody to get involved unless she thought that person would push for a clean debt ceiling hike, because that’s her position.” 

McConnell has warned repeatedly this year that he will stay out of the debt limit negotiations entirely. 

He told The Wall Street Journal in an interview last week he agreed in January that McCarthy would be the Republican point person in the negotiations.  

“The two of us agreed from the beginning that it was important for him to take the lead,” he said.  

Yet, Senate Democrats are also rooting for McConnell to step in to prevent a default, which appears more possible with each passing day as Biden and McCarthy remain far apart on a potential deal. 

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told reporters earlier this month he felt “slightly better” about avoiding a fiscal catastrophe after McConnell declared “the United States is not going to default, it never has and it never will.”  

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.)

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) speaks to a reporter near the Senate Chamber during a series of votes regarding nominations on Tuesday, May 2, 2023.

McConnell made those comments outside the White House after a meeting with Biden and McCarthy.  

The Senate GOP leader tried to reassure the media and the financial markets again Tuesday and emphasized it would be up to the president and Speaker, not himself, to work out a deal.   

“I think everybody needs to relax,” McConnell told reporters in Kentucky.   

“Regardless of what may be said about the talks … the president and the Speaker will reach an agreement. It will ultimately pass on a bipartisan vote in both the House and the Senate,” he said. “The country will not default.” 

McConnell himself has argued any debt limit deal reached in the Senate wouldn’t have a chance of passing the GOP-controlled House. 

Yet, Democrats are betting that McConnell will be forced to intervene at the last moment once the nation is on the brink of default, threatening chaos in the financial markets and a recession — just as he did most famously in summer 2011 when then-President Obama and then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) were at loggerheads over raising the debt limit.  

“I understand the convenience of passing the buck in this building, but in the end, Sen. McConnell always has his own opinion,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told The Hill earlier this month. “He doesn’t outsource his opinions and votes to Speaker McCarthy.”   

Mike Lillis contributed.