(WASHINGTON) — The Senate narrowly averted fiscal calamity Thursday evening in a late-evening vote to raise the federal borrowing limit, but the short-term solution has set the stage for a fierce political showdown in December.
While no Republicans voted to raise the debt ceiling, 11 Republicans voted with Democrats to break a Republican filibuster so that the measure could advance.
The kicked-can deal comes a little more than a week before Oct. 18 — the date Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen pegged as when the U.S. may no longer be able to cover its debts.
But the short-term solution is still not yet totally secured. The House is expected to return to Washington from its recess on Tuesday to approve the measure, where it is expected to pass on party lines before heading to President Joe Biden’s desk.
When the $480 billion debt hike is exhausted, the political gamesmanship from both parties that made a short-term solution difficult to achieve will likely be on heightened display, as lawmakers aim to deal with the lapse of their short-term extension of federal government funding at the same time.
In the weeks leading up to Thursday’s vote, Senate leadership was locked in a political staring contest over which party ought to bear responsibility for raising the limit.
Republicans for months said that Democrats would need to act on their own to raise the debt limit because they have total control of Washington and are planning to pass a multi-trillion social and economic package with zero input from Republicans. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said repeatedly that Democrats should have to hike the debt limit because of the high cost of Biden’s proposed agenda.
But Democrats have argued raising the debt limit is a bipartisan responsibility, in part because it covers spending that already took place under the Trump administration with unified GOP support.
Republicans blocked an earlier effort by Democrats to suspend the limit partially because they want Democrats to be forced to raise the limit by a specific dollar amount using a fast-track budget process budget tool called reconciliation. It would allow the majority to break a filibuster to pass certain legislation, but use of this arcane process is cumbersome, could take weeks and opens up Democrats to a series of potentially politically painful votes.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer rejected the reconciliation option, arguing it would take too much time.
The stalemate was temporarily broken on Thursday when 11 Republicans, including McConnell, joined all Senate Democrats in casting a procedural vote to break a filibuster on the debt limit. Ten GOP votes were necessary to clear the way for a second, simple majority vote to raise the debt limit by $480 billion. No Republicans voted with Democrats in a subsequent vote on the debt hike.
McConnell offered the deal to allow Democrats additional time to use reconciliation to pass a more permanent debt limit fix without GOP support.
“This will moot Democrats’ excuses about the time crunch they created and give the unified Democratic government more than enough time to pass standalone debt limit legislation through reconciliation,” McConnell said in a statement Wednesday.
But Democrats have said they’re no more prepared to use reconciliation in December than they were this month.
“There’s not going to be reconciliation,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told reporters emphatically on Wednesday.
Following Thursday’s vote, Schumer took to the floor to lambast Republicans for holding the debt limit hostage, further committing that Democrats would not budge on reconciliation.
“Let me say that again. Today’s vote is proof positive that the debt limit can be addressed without going through the reconciliation process, just as Democrats have been saying for months,” Schumer said on the floor. “The solution is for Republicans to either join us in raising the debt limit or stay out of the way and let Democrats address the debt limit ourselves.”
Some Republicans, and a visibly frustrated Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., were miffed by Schumer’s victory lap.
“I was not in the chamber when he spoke, so I didn’t hear it first hand,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Thursday evening. “But I heard from others there was a fair amount of frustration.”
Republican Whip Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said he told Schumer personally he was frustrated with his tone, calling it “out of line” and an “incredibly partisan speech after we had just helped him solve a problem.”
Many rank-and-file Republicans were also frustrated with McConnell for even offering Democrats a way to kick the can down the road on dealing with the debt limit.
“I believe it was a mistake to offer this deal. Two days ago Republicans were unified, we were all on the same page, we were all standing together and making clear that Democrats had complete authority to raise the debt ceiling, and to take responsibility for the trillions of debt that they are irresponsibly adding to this country,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said. “We were winning that fight and Schumer was on the verge of surrender. And unfortunately, the deal that was put on the table was a lifeline for Schumer. And I disagree with that decision.”
Discontent with the deal was on full display Thursday, as McConnell stood on the floor and counted his Republican “yes” votes to ensure the necessary 10 votes to proceed would be cast.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., gave a dramatic thumbs down at his turn — just steps away from McConnell.
McConnell had arrived on the floor moments after the vote began — a rare, early appearance for the leader who usually waits until later in the vote series to cast his. But this time clearly wanted his presence known. Rather than giving a thumbs up on his vote, he gave a bellowing and affirmative “aye” and stood in the well with other “yes” voters as they amassed, leaning over the center table as votes rolled in.
Rankling in the lower ranks of the GOP all but assures there won’t be a similar compromise coming in December when the parties will almost certainly find themselves in a similar stare down.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the Senate’s action Thursday “welcome steps forward” on the debt limit but reiterated the Democratic view that it should be a “shared responsibility” to raise the limit in December.
“We cannot allow partisan politics to hold our economy hostage, and we can’t allow the routine process of paying our bills to turn into a confidence-shaking political showdown every two years or every two months,” Psaki said.
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