WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats and Republicans neared agreement Wednesday to temporarily pull the nation from the brink of a debt default, working to punt their showdown on raising the federal borrowing limit to December after Republicans bowed to pressure to stave off immediate fiscal calamity.
With the threat of a default as little as 12 days off, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, made a tactical retreat and announced that Republicans would allow Democrats to vote on a short-term extension. He did not, however, lift his blockade of a longer-term increase in the debt cap, demanding anew that Democrats eventually use a complicated and time-consuming budget procedure known as reconciliation to lift it into next year or beyond.
Democrats declared the offer at least a temporary victory, even as they said they would never capitulate to McConnell’s longer-term demand. Senators met into the evening to iron out the details, and Democrats said they would move forward with a vote and then quickly pivot to negotiating a multitrillion-dollar measure to address climate change, expand the social safety net and raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
“Around here, two months is a lifetime,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chair of the Budget Committee, who hailed McConnell’s offer as “very good news.”
“There would have been a global economic collapse if in fact the wealthiest nation on earth did not pay its debts,” Sanders said. “We’re going to pay our debts. We have two months to figure it out.”
For all the self-congratulations, the agreement, if nailed down, resolved little beyond the immediate timetable. It would set up yet another consequential deadline for December, when Congress is already facing a hard date by which it must fund the government. Democrats also hope to complete their push to enact President Joe Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda before then.
“We are willing to take this offer in order to save off fiscal ruin,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. “But we are all beside ourselves that the only thing Republicans are willing to do is prevent disaster for three months and put us right back in this position.”
They did so after weeks of intransigence on the debt ceiling and in the face of mounting pressure from the Biden administration, Wall Street and politically powerful interest groups. For a week, Biden has been emphasizing the stakes of failing to quickly raise the debt ceiling, and he has ratcheted up those efforts in recent days, in public remarks and during a meeting with finance executives at the White House on Wednesday.
Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers issued a report Wednesday morning laying out in detail the grim consequences of a default, and declaring, “If Congress fails to act, it could take decades for the United States to fully recover.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also sounded the alarm with a statement warning that a debt ceiling breach would “seriously harm our service members and their families” by calling into question whether troops, Pentagon staff or defense contractors would be paid.
And in a letter to lawmakers circulated by the White House, AARP, a powerful lobbying group for seniors, cautioned that millions of older Americans could go without Social Security or Medicare benefits if the cap were not raised.
McConnell’s proposal offered a way to defuse criticism that his party was acting recklessly by blocking Democrats from even taking up a bill to raise the debt ceiling until December 2022. It also put off, for the time being, the prospect that Democrats might change the filibuster rules to allow themselves to go around Republicans and raise the debt ceiling unilaterally. It was that possibility, some GOP senators said Wednesday, that had motivated McConnell to seek a deal.
The offer also confronted Democrats with the prospect of a politically uncomfortable vote that some of them had wanted to avoid. McConnell demanded that they specify a dollar amount by which they would raise the debt cap, not simply suspend it until a certain date, potentially opening politically vulnerable Democrats to campaign ads attacking them for endorsing large amounts of spending.
“This will moot Democrats’ excuses about the time crunch they created and give the unified Democratic government more than enough time to pass stand-alone debt limit legislation through reconciliation,” McConnell said in a statement.
Even if the deal comes together, Democrats face three difficult choices for what to do in December when the new debt deadline cap would be reached. They could bow to McConnell’s demand and pass the long-term debt increase on their own through a time-consuming process that could bog them down and allow Republicans ample opportunities to tag them as big spenders.
Another option would be to move to change the Senate’s filibuster rules and allow a simple majority vote to raise the debt ceiling. Or, they could keep hoping that Republicans eventually fold under pressure, as they appeared to — at least temporarily — Wednesday.
McConnell’s offer was intended to counter Democrats’ argument that they did not have enough time to go through the multistep process of using budget rules to raise the debt limit. But his move may have been driven just as much by the threat of eliminating the filibuster.
Carving out an exception to the filibuster rules, which effectively require 60 votes to move forward with most legislation, has been done before to confirm judicial and executive branch nominees. But doing so unilaterally to raise the debt ceiling would be a step toward ending the practice for all policy matters and instituting straight majority rule.
The move has long been resisted by institutionalists and centrists in both parties — including two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — although some leading Democrats argue the debt ceiling crisis could change minds.
“Nothing changed,” Manchin told reporters Wednesday.
Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 4 Republican, warned that if Democrats changed the filibuster rule, “they’ll permanently change the Senate, permanently change the relationships that still matter in the Senate, and institute the idea that 50 of you plus a vice president of your party can always do whatever you want to do.
“I don’t think that’s healthy for the country,” he added. “It certainly wouldn’t be healthy for the Senate.”
Praying for Republicans to fold was an even riskier play for Democrats, given the stakes. If, for the first time, the U.S. government could not meet its obligations to international lenders, its role as the world economy’s safe-harbor investment would be called into question. Interest rates would most likely rise sharply, and global financial institutions would begin searching for new vehicles to store money, where it would not be subject to the whims of partisan politics.
“We’re not asking them to blink; we’re asking them to be the slightest bit reasonable,” Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said of Republican leaders. “The political gain of this strikes me as low. The loss to the country strikes me as extraordinarily high.”
Republican obstruction on the borrowing limit forced Democrats last week to strip a debt ceiling increase from a must-pass spending bill to avert a government shutdown. And McConnell refused to allow Democrats to unilaterally move to a vote.
“Democratic leaders haven’t wanted solutions,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “They’ve wanted to turn their failure into everybody else’s crisis, playing risky games with our economy, using manufactured drama to bully their own members, indulging petty politics instead of governing.”
Top Democrats have since dropped their insistence that Republicans join them in bipartisan support for raising the statutory cap on the government’s ability to borrow to meet its financial obligations. They, in turn, want McConnell to honor his demand that Democrats lift the ceiling alone — either by granting consent to move to a vote or by providing 10 Republican votes to break the filibuster.
“We’ve already presented Republicans numerous opportunities to do what they say they want, including by offering a simple majority vote so Democrats can suspend the debt ceiling on our own as Republicans have asked,” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said Wednesday. “But each time, Republicans have chosen obstruction.”
While top Republicans have said most of their members would privately support allowing Democrats to move forward on their own, they have been unwilling to vote publicly that way, and any single senator can object and force a vote.
McConnell has asserted in recent days that even if he wanted to, he had no way of corralling every Republican to allow a debt ceiling increase to move forward. But his offer Wednesday indicated that he could prevail on all 50 Republicans to agree to allow such a vote — if it was only for a short period of time.
Yet the political risks of doing so were immediately evident. Former President Donald Trump slammed the Senate leader in a statement Wednesday, suggesting that Republicans should continue blocking any debt limit increase.
“Looks like Mitch McConnell is folding to the Democrats, again,” Trump wrote. “He’s got all the cards with the debt ceiling.”
Democrats have repeatedly noted they joined with Republicans to raise the debt cap during Trump’s presidency with little drama, and that most of the debt they are now seeking to repay was incurred by policies he signed into law.
And while they united in opposition to debt ceiling increases under President George W. Bush, Democrats allowed Republicans to do the increases on their own, without filibusters. Republicans say they are using the tactic now because Democrats are pushing forward with their efforts to unilaterally pass a multitrillion-dollar climate change and social safety net bill that would be paid for by tax increases aimed at the rich and businesses.
On Wednesday, McConnell suggested that Republicans might drop their debt limit obstruction if Democrats gave up on their top legislative priority.
“If Democrats abandon their efforts to ram through another historically reckless taxing and spending spree that will hurt families and help China,” McConnell wrote, “a more traditional bipartisan governing conversation could be possible.”