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Bipartisan debt limit patch would raise borrowing cap by $480B

Senate agreement would buy enough borrowing room to get to Dec. 3, though Treasury may be able to stretch the dollars further

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer conducts a news conference in the Capitol on Sept. 28.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer conducts a news conference in the Capitol on Sept. 28. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate leaders reached agreement Thursday on a bipartisan debt limit patch that would increase the Treasury Department’s statutory borrowing cap by $480 billion, or about enough to get to Dec. 3.

The one-sentence text of the measure would line up the debt limit and Dec. 3 government funding deadlines when the continuing resolution lapses, setting up a potential two-tiered “fiscal cliff” later this year.

It was possible incoming tax revenue could give the Treasury more room to stay under the new borrowing cap, however, as December and January are historically strong months for tax receipts.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Treasury would be able to employ “extraordinary measures,” such as suspending investments of certain government trust funds, to stay within the borrowing cap beyond December.  Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters he believes the $480 billion figure includes room for Treasury to use extraordinary measures.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters his staff “thinks this’ll take us into 2022,” though he didn’t put a firm estimate on it. “It just depends, but I think the important thing is Dec. 3 is not a drop-dead date,” he said.

During the next two months, Democratic leaders and the Biden administration are planning to negotiate a multitrillion-dollar reconciliation package to address child care costs, paid family leave and climate change. 

The shaky agreement between Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and GOP leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t make any progress toward a longer-term fix for the debt limit, with both parties planted firmly in their camps.

Democrats are adamant they won’t use the budget reconciliation process they’re using to advance much of their domestic agenda to raise the debt limit, while Republicans argue that’s the only way to provide long-term stability. Schumer got a parliamentary opinion earlier this year that his side could reopen a previously adopted budget resolution to add new reconciliation instructions, including for a debt limit increase.

“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 the … reconciliation process,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.

The Kentucky Republican said that if Democrats “prefer a more traditional bipartisan discussion” around the debt limit, they would need to stop working on a reconciliation bill.

Schumer on Thursday morning referred to the short-term debt limit bill as “good news” but didn’t discuss any of the steps toward reaching a solution during the coming months.

He said he hoped the Senate would vote on the measure Thursday, sending it back to the House, which passed a suspension through Dec. 16, 2022, last week before leaving Washington for a two-week break.

Schumer on Thursday morning filed cloture on the amendment to that House-passed bill he worked out with McConnell and then employed the tactic known as “filling the tree” to block further amendments in the Senate. 

Timing in question

It wasn’t immediately clear if there’d be objections to speeding up the process of getting to a final vote before the weekend to let the chamber begin its scheduled one-week recess.

Senate Budget ranking member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for instance, has expressed concern with the short-term debt limit deal, arguing Democrats should go straight to the reconciliation process to raise the ceiling.

Graham tweeted Thursday morning that allowing even a short-term measure to pass would be “capitulation” by Republicans. Former President Donald Trump accused McConnell of “folding” on the issue. And conservative activist groups like FreedomWorks said they’d make the short-term debt limit bill a “key vote” on their congressional scorecards for the midterm elections.

Cornyn said before a closed-door caucus lunch Thursday there were three members of his party objecting to quick approval of the bill, but that he expected they’d reach agreement soon.

“I’m all for using the procedures to accomplish a result, but here it would accomplish nothing other than just to delay an inevitable result,” Cornyn said. 

Final passage didn’t appear to be in doubt. The main question Thursday afternoon was whether GOP senators would agree to skip the cloture vote and move directly onto final passage, allowing at least 10 of their members to avoid going on record backing debate on the debt limit bill. 

Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was among those pushing to hold the cloture vote. But Cruz told reporters he didn’t view the timing of the votes as a “question of particular consequence.” 

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said Thursday afternoon it appeared likely there’d be a cloture vote, although he didn’t know exactly when that would occur or when they’d have the votes locked down.

Thune, who’s up for reelection next year but hasn’t said whether he’ll run again, wouldn’t say whether he’d be one of the 10 votes himself. “Well, we’ll see, we’re having conversations with our members and kind of figuring out where people are,” he said. “But as you might expect this is not an easy one to whip.”

“In the end we’ll be there,” Thune added. “But … it’ll be a painful birthing process.” 

Fellow South Dakota Republican Mike Rounds didn’t directly address Trump’s comments about the short-term deal. But he appeared to support McConnell’s efforts.

“I can just tell you that Mitch McConnell has been straightforward with us and the goals that we laid out, to make Democrats accountable for a dollar amount certain” instead of suspending the debt limit, Rounds said, adding that’s “exactly in the works right now.” However he cautioned that GOP leaders still have to “deliver the votes.”

Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., called the deal struck by McConnell “a rather brilliant, elegant solution that’s gonna require nine people to play along.”

Assuming the measure passes the Senate, House Democratic leaders could try to gain unanimous consent to clear the legislation, though if there are objections they’d need to call members back for a recorded vote. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she’ll give members at least 72 hours’ notice, likely placing the vote early next week.

The Senate plan would be the first dollar increase in the debt ceiling since the 2011 deficit reduction package that led to a decade’s worth of automatic spending cuts known as sequesters. Those spending caps came off starting with the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Beginning with debt limit bills in 2013, lawmakers have continually suspended the borrowing cap without attaching a specific dollar figure to the legislation.

Lindsey McPherson, Chris Cioffi, Niels Lesniewski and David Lerman contributed to this report.

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