Senate advances short-term debt limit hike after GOP scramble
The Senate approved a short-term debt ceiling fix on Thursday night, bringing Congress a huge step closer to staving off an economic debacle until December.
The two-month patch overcame a Senate GOP filibuster, 61-38, then passed with all Democratic votes. The action followed a furious bout of GOP whipping to ensure at least 10 Senate Republicans would allow the bill to advance, giving Democrats the ability to clear the measure with a simple majority threshold.
In the end, 11 Republicans joined with all Democrats during a tense vote that narrowly cleared the chamber’s supermajority requirement. As the drama unfolded, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, intently studied the vote tally with little margin for error.
As Republicans were stuck at nine votes, everyone in the chamber waited for Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who eventually provided the 10th and 11th votes. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer quickly called the vote, then lambasted Republicans in a speech.
“I thank my Democratic colleagues for showing unity in solving this Republican-manufactured crisis,” Schumer said. “Despite immense opposition from Leader McConnell and members of his conference, our caucus held together and we have pulled our country back from the cliff’s edge that Republicans tried to push us over.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) buried his head in his hands at times during Schumer’s remarks. He said afterward he didn’t think Schumer’s remarks were “appropriate” but conceded he understood the leader’s frustration as well: “Chuck’s frustration was there, but that was not a way to take it out. We just disagree. I’d have done it differently.”
Republicans reacted volcanically to Schumer’s speech. Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who advanced the debt ceiling hike, told Schumer that his speech was “inappropriate and tone deaf.”
“He made the objective he described more difficult to achieve by virtue of what he said,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted to filibuster the bill and also confronted Schumer. “There’s a time to be graceful and there’s a time to be combative. That was a time for grace and common ground.”
The result avoids near-term calamity in the financial markets but only acts as a band-aid. Congress will have to revisit the debt ceiling sometime in December, and no one knows how that impasse will be resolved as the parties draw new lines in the sand. Republicans say Democrats must use the budget reconciliation process to enact further debt increases; Democrats say they will not and want a bipartisan process.
“The most important vote was the Democrats now owning the debt limit increase for their spending plans,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “I think it was a necessary and important outcome.”
Shortly before the vote, Senate Republicans emerged from a tense private conference meeting on Thursday evening still uncertain whether they could supply 10 votes to break a filibuster on a short-term debt ceiling deal.
Summoned by McConnell to the chamber’s peach-walled Strom Thurmond Room, GOP senators spent nearly two hours debating whether to vote to advance the two-month borrowing-limit hike. They had planned to let the fix go through with a simple majority vote, allowing Democrats to avoid default without a single Republican vote, but Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) foiled that arrangement by insisting on a filibuster.
“I believe it was a mistake to offer this deal. I don’t think it was a good deal,” Cruz said as he left the meeting.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also criticized McConnell for what he saw as a climbdown after the GOP leader offered an exit ramp to Democrats following weeks of rhetorical sparring with Schumer, according to two sources familiar with the meeting. Several other GOP senators expressed frustration with the party strategy, including Romney, according to one of the sources.
But despite the private discord, GOP leaders emerged bullish on putting together 10 votes. Thune said he believed the bill would advance, though at the time he declined to say how he would vote. Others were far less certain.
“If you’re asking me how this vote’s going to go, I don’t know,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who will vote against advancing the bill. “I don’t know how it’s going to come out.”
At a party lunch earlier in the day, McConnell prevailed on his members to put the short-term increase behind them and focus on fighting Democrats’ massive social spending bill. Ahead of vote, Rounds said he was being worked by leaders but wanted clarity on how his party would handle the next confrontation in two months.
The debt extension, announced by Schumer on Thursday morning, would raise the nation’s borrowing limit by $480 billion — preserving the nation’s credit through Dec. 3, when government funding is also set to expire. The confluence of deadlines could make even more of a mess by setting up a year-end fiscal crunch when the threat of default will coincide with a deadline to avoid a government shutdown.
The entire exercise has exasperated many senators.
“This whole process is stupidity on steroids,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said on Thursday.
Before the furious whipping effort, Republicans tried to let Democrats raise the debt ceiling without their help. Most in the GOP wanted to allow Democrats to pass the measure with just a majority threshold, leaving Republicans out of it. But Cruz refused.
“We’ve been trying to get them in a position to where they can lift it on their own. We shouldn’t put up any hurdles to keep them from doing it,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “The goal is to not have our fingerprints on lifting the debt ceiling.”
McConnell said the deal gives Democrats time to go it alone and eventually hike the nation’s credit cap using reconciliation, the same special budget maneuver that Democrats are using to pass their party-line social spending megabill. In that event, Republicans could use the higher debt figure in political ads against the majority party as Democrats defend their razor-thin margins in the 2022 midterms.
Democrats insisted that McConnell had caved by proposing the provisional patch and that they won’t use reconciliation to lift the debt ceiling. Republicans must agree to a longer-term bipartisan solution, as they have done in prior debt limit fights, Democrats say.
“He said all along that he wanted us to do this through budget reconciliation. And we’re not doing it. We made it clear we’re going to stand strong,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said on Thursday.
Some Democrats had entertained making an exception to the Senate’s filibuster rules for debt ceiling legislation, but the idea was quickly rejected on Wednesday by Manchin, one of the party’s key centrists. That helped grease the wheels for a short-term deal that at first looked like a slam dunk, then resembled more of a bank shot as the day went on.
Republicans still hope to force Democrats to use reconciliation come December after Democrats spurned their demands to do so this time around. “Democrats have to be put in a position where they have to increase the debt limit on their own,” Rounds said.
The House is set to return from its scheduled recess to take up the Senate-passed debt measure on Tuesday, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a Thursday night statement.
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.
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