Senate

Democrats think GOP will blink in newest debt brawl

Congress is headed into another nasty fight to raise the debt limit that has no resolution in sight.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told congressional leaders Tuesday that the federal government could default on its debt soon after Dec. 15 without action to raise the federal borrowing limit.

Senate Democrats are ruling out the possibility of using the special budget reconciliation process to raise the debt ceiling with only Democratic votes. But that means they’ll need some help from Senate Republicans, setting up another standoff over government spending next month. 

“We must pass the debt limit. We cannot let the full faith and credit of this country lapse, and we hope to do it in a bipartisan way,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Tuesday. 

Asked if he was still ruling out using budget reconciliation, Schumer repeated: “We are focusing on getting this done in a bipartisan way.”   

Republicans say they only voted with Democrats on an emergency basis in October to advance a two-month debt-limit increase. 

The GOP senators who backed the measure came under stark criticism from former President Trump, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would not provide the help again on a procedural vote.

With the new Dec. 15 deadline fast approaching, Schumer hasn’t made any move to set up a separate budget reconciliation process to address the debt limit. 

Some Democrats say they think the GOP, which in October backed away from a vow of not providing help, will blink again. 

Eleven Republicans voted with all 50 Democrats on Oct. 7 to end debate on the short-term debt limit extension and move the bill to a vote on final passage. 

“I think Republicans have now set the precedent that they understand they have an obligation to at least allow us to increase the debt limit with Democratic votes. I expect that we’ll reach the same place,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). 

But McConnell in a letter to President Biden after the last vote insisted it would not happen again. 

“I write to inform you that I will not provide such assistance again if your all-Democrat government drifts into another avoidable crisis,” he wrote. 

“Your lieutenants on Capitol Hill now have the time they claimed they lacked to address the debt ceiling through standalone reconciliation,” he wrote. 

Democrats are nevertheless counting on Republicans helping them once again. 

“It’s not going to be in this reconciliation bill,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), noting that the budget reconciliation vehicle that Democrats plan to use to pass the Biden administration’s climate and social spending agenda hasn’t been set up to also raise the debt limit.

Van Hollen dismissed the possibility that Democrats would vote to amend the 2022 budget resolution or pass a new budget resolution to allow for the debt limit measure to pass through a separate reconciliation vehicle. Doing that would consume two weeks of floor time when Democrats are racing to wrap up their legislative agenda by New Year’s Day. 

“We want to get all of these things done. It’s a huge agenda,” Schumer told reporters Tuesday, explaining that Senate Democrats plan to pass the annual defense authorization bill, legislation to fund government departments and agencies and Biden’s $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act in addition to raising the debt limit. 

If Schumer were to use the budget reconciliation process to pass a debt limit extension lasting beyond the 2022 midterm elections, it could consume weeks of floor time, Senate Democrats warn.

They say they don’t have the days to spare when there’s already so much left on their to-do list. 

The stalemate over the debt limit in late September and early October took the focus off negotiations on Biden’s human infrastructure agenda, stalling it for a few weeks. Democrats agreed to a two-month extension so they could devote their attention to finishing work on the Build Back Better Act. 

Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said another standoff over the debt ceiling will play out much differently. He said Democrats have no argument for not using budget reconciliation to extend federal borrowing authority without needing any Republican votes on setting up final passage. 

“The Dems will have to deliver the votes to raise the debt limit, and they know that,” he said.

He said the best way to do that is to amend the budget resolution to create a new debt limit measure that could pass with 51 Democratic votes under the reconciliation process. 

“The sooner they get started on that, the better,” he said, though he acknowledged that Democrats don’t seem to be going that route. 

“At some point the Democrats are going to have to focus on this, and right now they don’t seem to see that as a real high priority,” he added.

With the deadline approaching, McConnell is keeping his cards close to the vest. 

Asked about Democratic colleagues’ demands that Republicans help advance debt limit legislation, the GOP leader simply said: “We’ll figure out how to avoid default, we always do.” 

Tags Chris Murphy Chris Van Hollen Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Janet Yellen Joe Biden John Thune Mitch McConnell

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