Republican leaders are persuading their ranks to go along with a convoluted debt limit deal with Democrats to stave off an economic crisis, despite spending months threatening to allow the nation to default in protest of Democrats’ spending agenda.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has endorsed a compromise negotiated with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to make a one-time change to allow Democrats to increase the statutory limit on how much the government can borrow to pay its debts without needing Republicans’ votes.
The Treasury Department has said it will reach its borrowing limit on Dec. 15 unless Congress votes to increase it, at which point the nation would default and likely trigger an economic crisis.
Currently, any stand-alone vote to increase the debt limit would be subject to the Senate’s filibuster rule, and therefore need a bipartisan coalition of 60 senators in order to pass. The compromise would create a temporary carveout for the debt limit bill to not be subject to the filibuster.
For months, Republicans have said they would not vote to increase the debt limit in protest of Democrats’ Build Back Better agenda, which currently proposes to invest more than $1 trillion in green initiatives and an expanded social safety net.
The debt limit must be raised regardless of Democrats’ future policies in order to avoid default. But until now, Republicans have wanted Democrats to increase the debt ceiling through the reconciliation process, the budgetary maneuver that allows the Senate to pass legislation with a simple majority. That process, however, is procedurally lengthy and would give Republicans plenty of opportunities to score political points. Democrats said they wouldn’t do it.
This deal lets Democrats avoid the reconciliation process, but also lets Republicans vote against an increase to the debt ceiling. Instead, Republicans would only have to vote to support a bill that would temporarily lift the filibuster for the debt ceiling bill.
“Democrats always said that we were willing to shoulder the load and 50 votes to get this done, as long as it wasn’t a convoluted or risky process, and Leader McConnell and I have achieved that,” Schumer said.
In other words, Republicans are facilitating an increase to the debt limit but not explicitly voting for it.
McConnell endorsed the idea Tuesday: “I think this is in the best interest of the country by avoiding default,” he said.
So did several of his close allies in the Senate, including Sens. John Cornyn (Texas), Minority Whip John Thune (S.D.) and Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.). McConnell said he was confident he could get enough votes to make it happen.
The vote to allow the debt limit to be raised with a simple majority is expected to take place in the Senate by the end of this week alongside a measure to avoid billions of dollars in cuts to Medicare triggered by increases to the deficit.
If it passes, it would put to rest months of back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats on the debt limit, likely until after the November midterm elections. Congress has not yet agreed to an exact dollar amount to increase the debt limit by.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said she believes a default would sink the economy into a recession and that the government would fall behind on social security and veterans benefits payments.
In October, Senate Republicans begrudgingly voted with Democrats to temporarily extend the debt limit for just two months — up to the December deadline Congress is now facing. It was a vote that left Republican senators furious, feeling that their own leadership had caved to Democrats. Former President Donald Trump called out McConnell for “folding to the Democrats again” at the time.
Not everyone in McConnell’s conference is convinced by the compromise this time, either. Sen. Mike Rounds (D-S.D.) said he so far was not at all interested in the legislative maneuver.
“This time around [Democrats] need to do it on their own,” Rounds said. “We’ve given them the opportunity.”
Sen. Mike Braun (D-Ind.) seemed similarly unconvinced, though he made clear that he had not yet made up his mind.
Among the detractors is the conservative gun rights group, the National Association For Gun Rights, which is less worried about the increase to the debt limit than the idea of a filibuster carveout. In a statement Tuesday, the group said such a carveout would “set precedent for eliminating the filibuster in its entirety” and called it “disastrous” for gun rights.
Currently, however, there are not enough votes even among Democrats to eliminate the filibuster entirely.
For now, the risk of default appears too big for Republicans to keep obstructing an increase to the debt limit.