Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B

Congress is charging toward a government shutdown and debt default and appears to have no backup plan roughly a week before federal agencies would have to shutter their doors.

The Senate will vote as soon as Monday on a House-passed bill that would fund the government into early December and suspend the debt ceiling through 2022. But Republicans will block that bill from getting the 10 votes needed to break a filibuster because of the debt ceiling hike, and GOP senators stress that they aren’t bluffing. 

What comes next? Lawmakers aren’t totally sure. 

“I don’t know what the plan B is. … Plan B is to have Republicans step up and be responsible,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), member of party leadership.

Asked about the next step, Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told The Hill, “I assume Democrats go to the drawing board.”

Once Senate Republicans block the House bill, the federal government will be days away from a shutdown and potentially weeks away from a historic debt default that would have broad economic consequences. 

Congress has a week to avoid a shutdown that would begin on Oct. 1. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned leadership that they need to raise the debt ceiling as soon as next month.

Democrats on Wednesday were fielding at times outlandish questions from reporters about hypothetical escape hatches from the showdown. 

“Oh, I don’t know,” Warren quipped, “I haven’t been reading those children books.” 

Republicans say they see only one path to ending the standoff: Democrats, who supported debt ceiling suspensions under former President Trump, will raise the debt ceiling on their own as part of the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, which is not subject to a filibuster.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, held a joint press conference Wednesday to try to put pressure on Democrats. 

McConnell predicted that Democrats will ultimately cave and raise the debt ceiling on their own. 

“This is a totally Democratic government. They have an obligation to raise the debt ceiling and they will do it,” McConnell said. 

Republicans could, theoretically, not filibuster the House-passed continuing resolution debt bill and let it pass the Senate by a simple majority. Democrats have 50 votes in the Senate, so they could pass the package on their own if the GOP agrees to not block it.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) floated that Democrats could try to get consent to pass the House bill by a simple majority.

“You don’t have to filibuster anything. The Democrats want to increase the debt limit. They don’t want to shut down the government. They come to the floor. They got the 50 votes to do it,” Grassley said. 

But Thune warned that GOP senators won’t enable Democrats to sidestep the filibuster to raise the debt ceiling. 

“I think a lot of our members are very uncomfortable doing anything that would make it easier for them,” Thune said. 

Republicans see political benefits in forcing Democrats to raise the debt ceiling as part of the $3.5 trillion spending bill. To do so, Democrats will need to include a specific number that they are increasing the nation’s borrowing limit — a figure which would become prime fodder for 2022 GOP campaign ads.

There’s little appetite among Democrats to do this, and House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) appeared to rule out tweaking the bill in a statement Wednesday, saying that “parliamentary obstacles prevent us from altering this reconciliation bill or addressing the debt ceiling through reconciliation.” 

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he had been open to including the debt hike in the Democratic-only bill, but suggested the time for that had passed. 

“I thought we should do it,” Kaine said. “[But] I don’t think it’s easy to amend that instruction.” 

Republicans think Democrats will ultimately cave given their other political problems in moving the $3.5 trillion package, which has created a battle between centrists and liberals.

“With all of the challenges they have right now, I don’t see why you would want to add to that the government being shut down, so I assume they move forward by doing a CR,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), referring to a continuing resolution.  

Either way, an entrenched stalemate is possible after Republicans vote down the House-passed bill, which also includes natural disaster assistance and Afghan refugee resettlement money. 

Republicans aren’t currently discussing supporting a short-term debt limit extension to buy more time for a broader agreement. But they think there’s likely more time before the U.S. government hits the drop-dead date than what Yellen is saying publicly. 

“There’s always time beyond when any administration says,” Blunt said. 

Democrats could decide to drop the debt suspension and just pass the government funding portion to prevent a shutdown, but that would mean caving to McConnell, something some Democrats are loath to do.

Asked about stripping out the debt suspension and just funding the government, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) replied: “So then what’s the plan?” 

“We’ve got to pay our bills,” he said. “This is asinine. … People need to remove their heads from their lower extremities.” 

If Democrats dropped the debt ceiling and went ahead and funded the government, it’s not clear what they could attach a debt ceiling hike to before the U.S. government hits the critical date where it has to increase the nation’s borrowing limit or hit a default. 

“I don’t know where else the debt ceiling would go,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said, adding that he was “open to different pathways, but … there’s no question in my mind that it will only happen with Republican votes.”

Tags Chris Murphy Chuck Grassley Debbie Stabenow Donald Trump Janet Yellen John Thune John Yarmuth Jon Tester Mitch McConnell Roy Blunt Tim Kaine

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