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House approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike

The House late Tuesday passed legislation that paves the way for Congress to raise the debt limit in the coming days — and prevent an unprecedented federal default — by allowing Democrats to circumvent a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

Lawmakers adopted the measure along party lines, 222-212, with one Republican (retiring Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.)) joining all Democrats in support, as part of a deal struck earlier in the day by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and his Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The highly contortionist procedural strategy will empower Senate Democrats to raise the debt ceiling in a subsequent bill without a single Republican vote while liberating GOP senators to oppose that increase in the Treasury’s borrowing authority — a toxic idea in some conservative circles, particularly under a Democratic president — without contributing to an economy-crushing government default.

Tuesday’s vote came just more than a week before a Dec. 15 deadline, when the Treasury Department has warned Congress it will exhaust its borrowing powers and be forced to skip some of its financial obligations. The procedural language allowing Democrats to raise the debt limit by a simple majority is part of a bill that also averts automatic cuts faced by physicians and other medical providers under Medicare.

It’s not quite a done deal yet, however, as the bill will still be subject to a Senate filibuster, requiring 60 votes to proceed.

McConnell expressed confidence on Tuesday that his party will deliver at least 10 votes when the bill comes to the Senate floor later this week. But it’s not yet clear how many GOP senators will agree to back the compromise negotiated by McConnell.

Some of McConnell’s closest GOP allies signaled they would back it, including the second-ranking Senate Republican, John Thune (S.D.), as well as Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and Roy Blunt (Mo.). Yet at least two GOP of the 11 senators who helped advance the last debt ceiling agreement in October, Sens. Richard Shelby (Ala.) and Mike Rounds (S.D.), indicated on Tuesday that they would likely vote against the deal this week.

Still, Democratic leaders were confident that, with McConnell’s backing, the measure will easily clear the upper chamber.

“If Mitch and Cornyn and Blunt are on board, they’ll get seven more,” predicted Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Budget Committee.

For McConnell, the support marks the second time in recent months that he’s helped Democrats raise the debt ceiling, after vowing in no uncertain terms to refuse to do so.

Yarmuth, who’s known the Senate GOP leader for decades, said the reason was simple.

“He was in a box,” Yarmuth said.

“The fact that he essentially agreed to do a carve-out of the filibuster and then said he’d vote for it is a pretty big concession,” he added.

Assuming the bill creating the special process does win enough GOP support to advance in the Senate, Democrats would then pass a separate measure on their own that would actually raise the debt limit by a specific number. It’s expected that Democrats would enact a debt limit hike high enough to cover federal spending obligations until after the 2022 midterm elections.

The legislation establishing a new debt limit would then go to the House for approval.

How quickly the process moves remains an open question — one complicated by the recent death of former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who will lie in state beneath the Capitol Rotunda on Thursday. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Democrats behind closed doors Tuesday evening that they should expect to return to Washington next week.

“It seems to me, if I were betting, that certainly we’ll be back next week,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Rules Committee.

“So much depends on how quickly they act,” he added, referring to the Senate.

Another factor affecting the congressional calendar is the Democrats’ ongoing effort to pass the Build Back Better Act, a $2 trillion package of social benefits and climate programs passed by the House last month. Schumer is still fighting to move the legislation to President Biden’s desk before Christmas, and House Democrats also remain hopeful that such a timeline is achievable.

“I think the reason the NDAA was sent over so fast this week is because we’re trying to get a vote on [Build Back Better] as quickly as we can,” said one House lawmaker, referring to the National Defense Authorization Act, which the House is also set to approve Tuesday night.

Raising the debt limit does not authorize new spending but rather allows the government to pay off obligations that lawmakers have already enacted. A failure by Congress to raise the debt limit would result in a U.S. credit downgrade, a likely recession, and delayed payments of Social Security and military salaries.

The deal between Schumer and McConnell is a stark contrast to October, when the two traded barbs for weeks over how to raise the debt limit.

McConnell vowed that Republicans would not supply votes allowing a debt limit extension to pass, insisting that Democrats should do it on their own using the same budget reconciliation process they’re using to evade a filibuster on their sprawling social spending and climate package.

McConnell and 10 other Republicans eventually agreed to a short-term debt limit extension lasting into this month to prevent a default. He then warned Biden at the time that he “will not provide such assistance again if your all-Democrat government drifts into another avoidable crisis.”

This time around, Schumer and McConnell quietly negotiated for weeks to settle on a path forward for preventing a catastrophic debt default ahead of the deadline. McConnell maintained on Tuesday that the deal struck this week didn’t contradict his previous vow that Republicans wouldn’t help Democrats raise the debt limit.

“The red line is intact,” McConnell said. “The red line is that you have a simple majority party-line vote on the debt ceiling. That’s exactly where we will end up.”

It’s the second time this month that McConnell has worked to stave off the prospect of Republicans being blamed for sparking a fiscal crisis.

Last week, a small group of Senate conservatives threatened to hold up passage of a bill to avert a government shutdown just days before the deadline unless Democrats agreed to block funding for Biden’s vaccine-or-testing mandates for businesses, the military and federal workers.

McConnell, meanwhile, warned in a Fox News interview that linking a demand to defund the vaccine mandate to a must-pass bill to prevent a shutdown amid the new omicron variant of COVID-19 would “create chaos and uncertainty.”

The group of GOP senators eventually settled for an amendment vote on their proposal, which failed due to Democrats uniformly opposing it and some GOP absences.

Jordain Carney contributed. 

Tags Adam Kinzinger Charles Schumer debt ceiling Joe Biden John Cornyn John Thune John Yarmuth Mike Rounds Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Richard Shelby Roy Blunt
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