WASHINGTON — The Senate passed legislation Thursday to raise the debt ceiling through early December, after a small cluster of Republicans temporarily put aside their objections and allowed action to stave off the threat of a first federal default.
The action came the day after Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, partly backed down from his blockade on raising the debt limit, offering a temporary reprieve as political pressure mounted to avoid being blamed for a fiscal calamity.
But the fragile deal to move ahead was in doubt until the very end, with some Republicans reluctant to drop their objections. McConnell and his top deputies labored into the evening Thursday to persuade enough members to clear the way for a vote. Ultimately, 11 Republicans joined every Democrat in voting to take up the bill, clearing the 60-vote threshold needed to break the GOP filibuster.
The final vote was 50-48, with Democrats unanimously in support and Republicans united in opposition. It goes next to the House, where Democratic leaders were prepared to call lawmakers back for a vote.
“Republicans played a dangerous and risky partisan game, and I am glad that their brinkmanship did not work,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader. “What is needed now is a long-term solution so we don’t go through this risky drama every few months.”
The bill would raise the statutory debt limit by $480 billion, an amount the Treasury Department estimates would be enough to allow the government to continue borrowing through at least Dec. 3. The current debt limit was set at $28.4 trillion on Aug. 1, and the Treasury Department has been using so-called extraordinary measures to delay a breach of the borrowing cap since then.
The agency estimated that the government would no longer be able to pay all of its bills by Oct. 18, once those fiscal accounting maneuvers were exhausted. Without congressional action before then, economists and lawmakers have warned of catastrophic economic consequences, including the U.S. government having to choose between making interest payments on its debt and sending out Social Security checks and other crucial assistance.
The legislation under consideration Thursday did not offer a hard deadline for when cash would run out, and it would not restart the Treasury Department’s ability to employ extraordinary measures, such as curbing certain government investments, a Treasury official said. Some Republicans said they thought the set dollar figure would ensure the limit would not be reached again until at least January.
The actual “X-date” will be determined by calculating tax revenues and expenditures. Making such projections has been especially difficult this year because pandemic relief programs have made it hard to predict when money is coming and going.
“There is no way to predict with any precision exactly how much you would need to increase the debt limit by to get to a certain date,” said Shai Akabas, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
But in aiming for Dec. 3, the measure could set up another consequential deadline for the first Friday in December, the same day that government funding is set to lapse if Congress does not approve new spending legislation. Democrats hope the nearly two additional months will give them space to focus on hammering out, finalizing and enacting most of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda, which has been stalled by intraparty disagreements over an expansive multitrillion-dollar social safety net, climate and tax increase package.
In raising the prospect of a stopgap extension Wednesday, McConnell had said that Republicans would allow Democrats to use normal procedures to consider it. But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, demanded a recorded vote, meaning at least 10 Republicans would be needed to join every Democrat to move the bill forward.
“We were on the verge of victory, but we turned that victory into defeat,” Cruz said in a lengthy speech on the Senate floor, calling it a “strategic mistake by our leadership.” But, he added, “Chuck Schumer won this game of chicken.”
Making matters trickier for Republicans, former President Donald Trump chimed in Wednesday to savage McConnell for “folding to the Democrats,” suggesting that Republicans should instead force a showdown on the debt limit, which economists, business leaders and government officials have said would be disastrous. Less than an hour before a scheduled vote, Trump again urged Republicans not to vote for “this terrible deal.”
Before scheduled votes Thursday evening, Republicans were huddled in an unusual conference meeting at the Capitol, as several members balked at the prospect of helping Democrats avert a default. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican and his party’s chief vote counter, called the process of corralling Republicans to support the move “a painful birthing process.”
“While not perfect, I think it gets us there, and so I’m going to be supportive of his proposal,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, one of the 11 who broke with her party to allow the measure to proceed.
She joined a group of moderates, retiring senators and leadership allies in her party in voting to clear the way for the debt limit increase. They included McConnell; Thune; and Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Susan Collins of Maine, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Rob Portman of Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Mike Rounds of South Dakota.
The deal did little to address the crux of the partisan stalemate over the debt. Most notably, Republicans have not dropped their demand that Democrats use an arcane and time-consuming budget process known as reconciliation to lift the debt ceiling into next year.
Democrats are currently using that process to steer around Republican opposition and push through the multitrillion-dollar spending package at the center of Biden’s agenda.
“The pathway our Democratic colleagues have accepted will spare the American people any near-term crisis,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. The extension, he added, also means “there’ll be no question they’ll have plenty of time” to use the reconciliation process to approve a long-term increase.
After McConnell joined Republicans in clearing the procedural hurdle, Schumer shot back that “today’s vote is proof positive that the debt limit can be addressed without going through reconciliation process — just as Democrats have been saying for months.”
Some Republicans were frustrated by what they described as a willingness to enable additional government spending, after weeks of remaining united behind their insistence that Democrats should raise the debt ceiling alone — even though lifting that limit allows the government to finance borrowing to pay for existing programs, not future expenses.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called McConnell’s move “a complete capitulation,” echoing Trump.
“I can understand why Democrats don’t want to use reconciliation for the debt ceiling, because politically, it will be tough,” Graham said. “But I don’t understand why we as Republicans are folding here.”
McConnell, in remarks Thursday, maintained that Republicans would never agree to allow Democrats to pass a routine increase in the debt limit as long as they continued to pursue their top legislative priority.
“If our colleagues would instead prefer a more traditional bipartisan discussion around basic governance, they can stop trying to ram through yet another reckless taxing and spending spree that would hurt families and help China,” McConnell said.
Democrats have scoffed at those demands to abandon the bill at the heart of their agenda, and have so far refused to use the reconciliation process specifically for the debt limit. They have argued that the cumbersome process would take up too much time and that Republicans should help accommodate debt stemming from policies approved by both parties.
“The ultimate solution would be for a bipartisan vote to occur,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. “Clearly, Mitch McConnell continues to not want to take any responsibility.”
Instead, Democrats have raised the possibility of changing the filibuster rules to bypass Republican opposition and raise the debt ceiling unilaterally, a prospect that appeared to have helped push McConnell to seek the deal reached Thursday.
The discussion of curbing the filibuster had intensified in recent days, despite long-standing resistance to doing so from Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, two key centrist Democrats. Before releasing his statement offering a temporary escape from the impasse, McConnell spoke with the two senators, conversations first reported by Politico and confirmed by a person with knowledge of them.
“Joe and Kyrsten are taking a lot of arrows, and they’re taking those arrows more on our behalf than their own party’s behalf,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. “That’s worthy of our notice and it’s worthy of our recognition.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.