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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

House Democrats move forward with petition to force debt limit vote

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks at a news conference on debt limit negotiations at the Capitol in Washington, on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

By Carl Hulse

House Democrats pushed forward earlier this week with a procedural move that could force a vote to increase the debt limit should negotiations between President Joe Biden and Republicans collapse, moving despite signs of progress in the bipartisan talks to advance a long-shot Plan B to avert a default.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the minority leader, wrote to his colleagues urging them to quickly sign a discharge petition, which can automatically force a House vote on legislation if 218 members sign it.

Although Jeffries noted there were signs after Tuesday’s White House meeting hosted by Biden that a “real pathway exists to find an acceptable, bipartisan resolution that prevents a default,” he said Democrats must take all possible steps to avert a crisis.

At the same time, the president has indicated openness to considering new work requirements for recipients of food stamps and other federal aid, a Republican demand opposed by Democrats in the House and Senate. Biden, before he left for Japan on Wednesday to attend a meeting of the Group of 7 nations, sought to downplay whatever concessions he might make, characterizing the potential changes to benefit requirements as “not anything of any consequence.”

The Treasury Department has projected that it could exceed its legal authority to borrow to pay the government’s debt as early as June 1, leading to a disastrous default.

“Given the impending June 1 deadline and urgency of the moment, it is important that all legislative options be pursued in the event that no agreement is reached,” Jeffries wrote. He said that Rep. Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania, the senior Democrat on the Budget Committee, would be filing a discharge petition “to provide a vehicle that may be necessary to protect the full faith and credit of the United States.”

“It is imperative that members make every effort to sign the discharge petition today,” Jeffries wrote.

On Wednesday evening, Democrats lined up in the House chamber to sign the petition, with more than 200 lawmakers adding their names. Democratic officials expect that all 213 of their members will sign the petition if no breakthrough in the budget negotiations emerges.

The Democratic strategy faces long odds, given the complexity of the maneuver and the partisan divide in the debt talks. Democrats would need at least five GOP members to join them to reach a majority and force a vote, but no Republican is expected to even consider signing unless the debt limit situation becomes especially dire.

But even if the effort falls short, Democratic officials say the discharge petition keeps pressure on Republican leaders to strike a deal or face a potential revolt among their more politically vulnerable members who could pay a price with voters if they are seen as helping to push the country into default. Democrats also see the petition as a way to demonstrate that their party is doing all it can to prevent an economic debacle.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday dismissed the tactic as a “political game” that would go nowhere, noting that conservatives in the Senate would try to block it.

“So is that even sensible? Is that even being productive? Is that even responsible?” McCarthy said at a news conference with congressional Republicans. “It seems to be that would be playing into a Biden default. I think America is tired of those political games.”

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. and a leading legislative tactician as chair of the Rules Committee, said Tuesday that he doubted Republicans would cross over and sign on.

“I don’t think we are in any trouble,” Cole said in an interview. “I don’t think anybody wants to be one of about a half a dozen that hands victory over to Biden.”

The Democratic maneuver is considered a last resort, and such efforts have rarely worked in the past, given the obstacles put in the way. Even if the backers of the petition were to obtain the required signatures, House rules stipulate that the legislation could be voted on only on specific days.

Aware of the constraints, Democrats quietly took steps earlier this year to make sure they had ample time to execute their plan, introducing an obscure bill that could be used as a vehicle for an eventual debt limit increase so it could be referred to committees in time to run out the 30-day clock that House rules require before a measure can be discharged. This month, they filed a special emergency proposal that cleared the way for them to begin collecting signatures this week.

Democrats see Republicans in swing districts carried by Biden as those most likely to be swayed in the event of a default since they could be most at political risk.

But Cole said that House Republicans from those districts had been the most reliable backers of McCarthy, who would oppose a discharge petition since it would essentially take control of the floor out of his hands.

“I don’t think they are likely to crack,” he said.

In his letter, Jeffries noted that former President Donald Trump had encouraged Republicans to allow the nation to default if Republicans cannot extract deep spending cuts from Democrats, a position that could encourage Republicans to hold out in the talks.

“In the next few weeks, at the reckless urging of former President Trump,” he wrote, “we confront the possibility that right-wing extremists will intentionally plunge our country into a default crisis.”

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