McConnell summons GOP in scramble to raise debt ceiling

The Senate will vote Thursday night on a short-term debt limit patch to stave off economic disaster in less than two weeks, though a handful of Republicans first must walk the plank.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the upper chamber will vote to cut off debate on the proposal, which requires help from at least 10 Republicans, after the minority party struggled Thursday afternoon to reach an agreement that would allow the measure to pass without a GOP blockade. If enough Republican senators are willing to break with the rest of the party, Democrats can then pass the measure along party lines, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker.

As of earlier Thursday, Republicans were still short of the 10 votes needed to advance the debt ceiling increase over the filibuster’s supermajority requirement. GOP leaders worked furiously all afternoon to get members to agree to finish the bill and get out of town. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell prevailed on his members to put the short-term increase behind them and focus on fighting Democrats’ massive social spending bill.

Senate Republicans gathered in the Strom Thurmond room ahead of the vote as the party searched for 10 votes to break a filibuster.

“As you might expect, it’s not an easy one to whip,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), adding he expected Republicans to eventually get there, despite a “difficult birthing process.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), for example, signaled earlier to GOP leaders he would not allow Democrats to evade a filibuster, potentially sending the Republicans back to the drawing board, according to two sources familiar with his plans.

The debt limit extension, announced by Schumer on Thursday morning, would raise the nation’s credit limit by $480 billion through Dec. 3 when government funding is also set to expire. While an unparalleled default on the nation’s debt is temporarily off the table, the short-term fix merely punts a standoff that has already dragged on for months, and could serve to make the fight 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 left many senators exasperated.

“This whole process is stupidity on steroids,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said on Thursday.

Some GOP hardliners appeared open to a fast-track process. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said that he wouldn’t object to an agreement that ensures a quick vote on the measure, but he reiterated that he will “vote no on raising the debt ceiling.”

Others said they see the value in allowing Democrats to pass the measure with just a majority threshold, leaving Republicans out of it.

“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 limit using reconciliation, or the same special budget maneuver that Democrats are using to pass their party-line spending plan. In that case, Republicans could use the higher debt figure in political ads against the majority party as Democrats defend razor-thin margins in the 2022 midterms.

“The pathway our Democratic colleagues have accepted will spare the American people any near-term crisis while definitely resolving the majority’s excuse that they lacked time to address the debt limit“ through reconciliation, McConnell said on the floor Thursday.

Democrats insisted that McConnell had caved by extending 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 the GOP has 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 Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of the party’s key centrists.

Republicans still hope to force Democrats to use reconciliation. Some like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the top Republican on the Budget Committee, are worried that Democrats will continue to blow off using the special budget process, concerned the deal could eventually give them a pass on GOP demands.

The debt ceiling only covers spending that has already been authorized by the federal government. The Biden administration has warned that the Treasury Department could run out of money as soon as Oct. 18, which could send financial markets into a tailspin, raise interest rates and jeopardize critical safety net payments to millions of Americans.

Once the Senate and House pass the short-term fix, they’ll return to the same fight in a matter of weeks. If Congress can’t come to an agreement by early December, Treasury may find itself with a little extra wiggle room to ensure the government keeps paying the bills on time. But exactly how much time is unclear, and depends largely on federal cash flow.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned Congress could cause “irreparable damage to the U.S. economy and global financial markets“ by waiting until the last minute to raise or suspend the debt ceiling.

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