Chuck Schumer
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks to reporters after a Democratic policy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, October 5, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

There are no longer any Jewish Republicans in the United States Senate. But surely the Republican conference is familiar with chutzpah, once described as the nerve it takes for a child to shoot his parents and then seek the court’s mercy because he’s an orphan. Last week, Republicans showed a lot of chutzpah.

On Thursday, October 7, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer took to the floor after a handful of Republicans—and all of the Democrats—voted to override a Republican filibuster of a measure to raise the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling, of course, is a cap on how much the federal government can borrow to pay for past spending. It’s not, as the GOP scaremongers would have you believe, a shiny black Amex card that the Democrats want to use to pay for confirmation surgery for Oberlin students and critical race theory for preschoolers. It’s just like paying your Visa bill.

The debt ceiling is raised regularly because not raising it means the U.S. would be defaulting on its debts. The collapse of the full faith and credit of the U.S. would be unprecedented. The inability to issue and sell more Treasury bonds and Treasury notes would, as figures from Jamie Dimon to Bernie Sanders have noted, trigger an economic catastrophe. Even if the default only lasted an hour, it would likely raise borrowing costs for the U.S. forever, making the Biden spending proposals look like loose change.

Schumer noted that the GOP had caved—somewhat. After the Republicans had insisted that the only way they’d raised the debt ceiling was through Democratic votes and the cumbersome reconciliation process, McConnell folded. He allowed for a short-term hike in the debt, enough borrowing to last until early December, when Congress would also have to face a government shutdown. After McConnell corralled 11 Republican senators to end a Republican filibuster, Democrats raised the debt ceiling with no Republican votes. Vice President Kamala Harris cast the vote to break the tie.

As this debt ceiling Band-Aid was being applied, Schumer took to the floor and scolded the Republicans. “Republicans played a dangerous and risky partisan game, and I am glad that their brinkmanship did not work, for the good of America’s families, for the good of our economy,” the New Yorker said. “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. This is a temporary but necessary and important fix.”

Republicans went bonkers—not over their taking the economy hostage but over the temerity of Schumer to rebuke them. “Classless speech,” said Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota, one of the Republicans dragooned by McConnell into voting to raise the ceiling. Rounds added that Republicans wouldn’t cooperate next time. Mitt Romney, whom Democrats have come to see as a voice of reason, went up to Schumer after the speech to express his displeasure about Schumer’s tone. “There’s a time to be graceful, and there’s a time to be combative,” Romney said. “That was a time for grace and common ground.” Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat whom Republicans love, ostentatiously buried his face in his hands while Schumer was speaking. “I didn’t think it was appropriate,” Manchin said. “Civility is gone.”

The next day McConnell feigned being so angry that he vowed not to do anything in December to resolve the crisis his own party had caused. “Last night, in a bizarre spectacle, Senator Schumer exploded in a rant that was so partisan, angry, and corrosive that even Democratic Senators were visibly embarrassed by him and for him,” McConnell wrote to Biden. “This childish behavior only further alienated the Republican members who helped facilitate this short-term patch.”

Usually, I’m on the side of comity (and comedy, as a former stand-up). I like all the legislative formalities like “My friend from Alaska” and “Will the gentleman yield?” Manners are the lubricant of civilization, and in the tiny world of the U.S. Senate, where you might end up working with the same codgers for 50 years, such rituals might seem like Kabuki, but they are not. They’re needed—but not at the expense of truth.

The thing that Schumer did right—and that Republicans are pearl-clutching about—was to tell the truth. The GOP has threatened to blow up the economy, and just because they forged a deal to delay the detonation by a few weeks doesn’t change that. McConnell’s plan to force Democrats to use reconciliation fell apart, causing the Kentuckian to make 11 members of his conference walk the plank even though the GOP insisted that they were not voting to increase the debt ceiling, only to end a filibuster. I’m not surprised that Rounds and Romney are pissed off—and even less so that Manchin is, too.

Schumer could have just said nothing or even something perfunctory about this awkward pause in the countdown to the financial apocalypse. But by using the moment to scold the Republicans and remind the country that this is an entirely GOP-manufactured crisis, he helped rally dispirited Democrats.

And he forced the press—which has been portraying the GOP debt crisis as a “stand-off,” with “both sides” not wanting to “blink”—to pay attention and quote him laying the blame on McConnell, where it belongs. (For more on the press struggles to get this right, see “Breaking the News,” the new Substack from the longtime Washington Monthlycontributing editor James Fallows.) In a way, Schumer had to do the press’s job for it. We’ve got another eight weeks of this idiotic and dangerous game that the GOP is playing just so they can label the Democrats as fiscally reckless. (Where were they for the Trump tax cuts?) Hopefully, the press will get better at this.

This kind of moment doesn’t come easily for Schumer. He’s spent 46 of his 70 years as a legislator. He lives and breathes by all the enforced decorum, whether it was the New York Assembly, the U.S. House, or the U.S. Senate. This time, the chutzpah got to be too much.

Matthew Cooper

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattizcoop. Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.