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House passes legislation to pave way for debt ceiling increase


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) arrives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Dec. 7, 2021.

By Emily Cochrane and Margot Sanger-Katz


The House approved legislation earlier this week that would pave the way for a swift increase in the debt ceiling amid a Republican blockade, after congressional leaders in both parties agreed to try an unusual maneuver that could avert the threat of a first-ever federal default.


The 222-212 vote came after days of quiet bipartisan talks to resolve the stalemate culminated in a deal. Only one House Republican, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, joined Democrats in voting in favor of the measure, demanding that the party in charge of both congressional chambers and the White House address the government’s ability to borrow.


Its passage was not guaranteed in the evenly divided Senate, where Republicans have for weeks refused to let Democrats take up any bill to provide a long-term increase. But Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate minority leader, signaled confidence that enough of his colleagues could accept the solution.


The Treasury Department has said that it could breach the statutory limit on its ability to borrow to finance the federal government’s obligations soon after Dec. 15 without congressional action. That would lead to a catastrophic default that would wreak havoc on the U.S. and global economies.


The measure would create a special pathway — to be used only once, before mid-January — for the Senate to raise the debt limit by a specific amount with a simple majority vote, allowing Democrats to steer clear of a filibuster or other procedural hurdles so that Republicans would have no means to block it.


Democrats are likely to choose a number that would keep the government from reaching the new debt ceiling before the midterm elections next year, but senior aides familiar with the talks did not immediately provide an amount. One Treasury estimate suggested that it could be as much as $2.5 trillion to keep paying its bills through the midterms, according to a person familiar with the preliminary accounting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.


The contortions are necessary because Republicans have refused to drop their blockade against legislation to provide a long-term increase in the debt limit, going beyond merely opposing the increase and refusing to allow Democrats to do so unilaterally. With Democrats using the fast-track budget reconciliation process to shield President Joe Biden’s $2.2 trillion climate, tax and spending legislation from a filibuster, Republicans initially demanded they use that same process to raise the debt limit.


But Democrats balked, arguing that doing so would be too complicated and time-consuming, and that there should be a bipartisan effort to accommodate debt approved by both parties. Instead, the new bill would effectively strip Republicans of the opportunity to filibuster an increase to the debt limit for a single time, a solution that McConnell said would break the logjam.


“I believe we’ve reached here a solution to the debt ceiling issue that’s consistent with Republican views of raising the debt ceiling for this amount at this particular time and allows the Democrats to proudly own it,” he said at a news conference Tuesday.


The proposal is wrapped into legislation that would postpone scheduled cuts to Medicare, farm aid and other mandatory spending programs that were set to kick in next year. Once that bill becomes law, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the Senate majority leader, would introduce separate legislation raising the debt limit. That is expected to pass with only Democratic votes in the 50-50 Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris is empowered to break ties.


“Democrats always said that we were willing to shoulder the load at 50 votes to get this done, as long as it wasn’t a convoluted or risky process,” Schumer said. “Leader McConnell and I have achieved that.”


McConnell and 10 Republicans agreed in October to allow the Senate to take up a short-term increase to the debt limit, which ultimately passed with Democratic votes. But some of those senators — including McConnell, in a scathing letter to Biden — warned that they would not acquiesce again.


But in November, McConnell and Schumer began quietly discussing alternatives.


“I’m confident that this particular procedure, coupled with the avoidance of Medicare cuts, will achieve enough Republican support to clear the 60-vote threshold,” McConnell said, predicting a Thursday vote for the bill in the Senate.


That would require 10 Republicans to join Democrats in advancing the measure, a prospect that McConnell discussed at lunch with members of his party Tuesday afternoon. Some Republicans questioned it, arguing that passing new legislation to allow a fast-track debt ceiling increase would set a new and troubling precedent.


“My Democrat colleagues are choosing to go it alone because seemingly they’re obsessed with spending taxpayer dollars wastefully,” said Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee. “House Republicans can’t support using patients and access to local doctors as leverage to increase the national debt on our children.”


Some Senate Republicans said they would be open to supporting the legislative gymnastics in the interest of foisting political responsibility for raising the limit onto Democrats.


“To have Democrats raise the debt ceiling and be held politically accountable for racking up more debt is my goal, and this helps us accomplish that,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters before the lunch.


Democrats indicated that they would own the vote.


“Democrats are willing to be the grown-ups in the room and get it done,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Republicans, she added, were “the ones who are putting the United States at risk for defaulting on our legal obligations, and we just can’t have that.”


Should the legislation become law, it is unclear how quickly Schumer would bring up a measure needed to raise the debt ceiling. But the action Tuesday moved Democrats, who began the month with a daunting pile of crucial legislation, closer to completing their year-end business after negotiators reached an agreement on defense policy legislation. They are eager to turn their attention to pushing through a $2.2 trillion climate, tax and spending bill that carries the bulk of Biden’s domestic agenda.


“We are heartened to see the progress being made today and hope for quick consideration so we can focus on the president’s economic agenda,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “This would leave space to spend time and focus on that.”


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