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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

House Democrats move to force debt-limit increase as default date looms

Representative Mark DeSaulnier, Democrat of California, at a hearing in 2019. He introduced the 45-page legislation without fanfare in January.

By Carl Hulse

The only clue to the gambit was in the title of the otherwise obscure hodgepodge of a bill: “The Breaking the Gridlock Act.”

But the 45-page legislation, introduced without fanfare in January by a little-known Democrat, Rep. Mark DeSaulnier of California, is part of a confidential, previously unreported, strategy that Democrats have been plotting for months to quietly smooth the way for action by Congress to avert a devastating federal default if debt ceiling talks remain deadlocked.

With a possible default now projected as soon as June 1, Democrats earlier this week began taking steps to deploy the secret weapon they have been holding in reserve. They started the process of trying to force a debt-limit increase bill to the floor through a so-called discharge petition that could bypass Republican leaders who have refused to raise the ceiling unless President Joe Biden agrees to spending cuts and policy changes.

“House Democrats are working to make sure we have all options at our disposal to avoid a default,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the minority leader, wrote in a letter he sent to colleagues Tuesday. “The filing of a debt ceiling measure to be brought up on the discharge calendar preserves an important option. It is now time for MAGA Republicans to act in a bipartisan manner to pay America’s bills without extreme conditions.”

An emergency rule that Democrats introduced Tuesday, during a pro forma session held while the House is in recess, would start the clock on a process that would allow them to begin collecting signatures as soon as May 16 on such a petition, which can force action on a bill if a majority of members sign on. The open-ended rule would provide a vehicle to bring DeSaulnier’s bill to the floor and amend it with a Democratic proposal — which has yet to be written — to resolve the debt-limit crisis.

The strategy is no silver bullet, and Democrats concede it is a long shot. Gathering enough signatures to force a bill to the floor would take at least five Republicans willing to cross party lines if all Democrats signed on, a threshold that Democrats concede will be difficult to reach. They have yet to settle on the debt ceiling proposal itself, and for the strategy to succeed, Democrats would likely need to negotiate with a handful of mainstream Republicans to settle on a measure they could accept.

A handful of hard-right Republicans explicitly warned their colleagues on Tuesday not to go down that path. “House Republicans: don’t defect!” Sen. Mike Lee of Utah wrote on Twitter.

Still, Democrats argue that the prospect of a successful effort could force House Republicans into a more acceptable deal. And Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s announcement Monday that a potential default was only weeks away spurred Democratic leaders to act.

House Democratic leaders have for months played down the possibility of initiating a discharge petition as a way out of the stalemate. They are hesitant to budge from the party position, which Biden has articulated repeatedly, that Republicans should agree to raise the debt limit with no conditions or concessions on spending cuts.

But behind the scenes, they were simultaneously taking steps to make sure a vehicle was available if needed.

There were no signs Tuesday of any momentum toward even a temporary resolution. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, brushed aside the idea of putting off a confrontation by passing a short-term debt limit increase, telling reporters: “We should not kick the can down the road.”

And Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, reiterated that he intended to leave the negotiations to Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, again dashing the private hopes of some Democrats that the veteran Republican would ultimately cut a deal with them to allow the debt ceiling to be lifted, as he has done in the past.

“There is no solution in the Senate,” McConnell said.

The White House had no public comment on the discharge effort, according to Karine Jean-Pierre, the press secretary. Biden is scheduled next week to host McCarthy and other congressional leaders at the White House to discuss raising the debt limit. His goal at that meeting, a senior administration official said, will be to stress the importance of averting default and creating a separate negotiation to address other budget issues.

The discharge petition process can be time-consuming and complicated, so House Democrats who devised the strategy started early and carefully crafted their legislative vehicle. Insiders privately refer to the measure as a “Swiss Army knife” bill — one that was intended to be referred to every single House committee in order to keep open as many opportunities as possible for forcing it to the floor.

It would create a task force to help grandparents raising grandchildren, create a federal strategy for reducing earthquake risks, change the name of a law that governs stock trading by members of Congress, extend small business loans, protect veterans from the IRS, authorize a new Pentagon grant program to protect nonprofit organizations against terrorist attacks and more. The legislation was so broad and eclectic that it was referred to 20 committees, where it has sat idle for months. That was the point.

DeSaulnier’s intent was never to pass the elements of the bill, although he favors them all. It was to create what is known on Capitol Hill as a shell of a bill that would ultimately serve as the basis for a discharge petition — and a way out of the debt-limit standoff.

Democrats say the beauty of DeSaulnier’s bill — which Republicans have ignored — is that it long ago passed the threshold of being held in committee for at least 30 days, the minimum length of time to initiate a discharge petition to force action on legislation. Even so, in a memo sent to members on Tuesday, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce analysis projected that even if Democrats were able to draw enough support for their plan and advance it without further delay, the measure could take until June 12 or 13 to clear Congress — many days beyond the earliest date Yellen has warned the debt limit could be reached.

Democrats said the fact that their bill would fall under the jurisdiction of so many committees gave them several options for moving forward.

DeSaulnier was picked to sponsor the measure because his low profile meant there was likely to be little attention to his bill. In contrast, any legislation introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee, would have drawn attention immediately, and Republicans might have been able to take action to derail it.

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