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Short-term debt limit increase passes Senate, heads to House

Measure would buy time for a longer-term fix needed later this year or early in 2022

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito was among 11 Republican senators who voted for cloture on the debt limit measure.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito was among 11 Republican senators who voted for cloture on the debt limit measure. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate passed a temporary debt limit increase along party lines Thursday evening, a move that would give the Treasury Department at least a couple of months before it once again bumps up against its legal borrowing cap.

The 50-48 vote sent the bill to the House, where that chamber will need to clear the measure before it heads to President Joe Biden. That vote, likely next week, could be tricky given GOP opposition to the short-term patch and Democrats in that chamber barely backing a longer suspension of the debt limit late last month.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House’s principal deputy press secretary, said Biden “looks forward to signing” the debt limit measure after it clears.

The Senate amended the House bill, which passed 219-212, replacing a longer debt ceiling suspension with a $480 billion increase in Treasury’s borrowing cap designed to last into early December, though it may go a little longer.

The key vote was cloture, where there was some uncertainty earlier in the day that Republican leaders would be able to muster the 10 votes needed on their side to get to the 60-vote threshold.

Before the vote, GOP senators huddled for what Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called a “robust discussion.” Shortly after that 90-minute meeting, Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., emerged and told reporters “we will be fine” on the cloture vote.

The pact was based on an offer Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made to Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer on Wednesday to break the logjam with time dwindling before Treasury’s stated Oct. 18 deadline. The deal met a key GOP demand, to raise the debt limit by a specific dollar amount rather than suspending it.

But it nonetheless left many Republicans, most of whom signed an August letter vowing not to raise the debt ceiling, frustrated.

“I don’t understand why we are folding here,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “For two months Republicans have been saying Democrats want to spend $3.5 trillion without any Republican input. If they are going to do that, they need to raise the debt ceiling on their own. This is just a mistake.”

Cruz told reporters after the meeting that he believed McConnell’s offer was a “mistake.”

“Two days ago, Republicans were unified; we were all on the same page, we were all standing together and making clear that Democrats had complete authority to raise the debt ceiling,” Cruz said. “And unfortunately, the deal that was put on the table was a lifeline for Schumer, and I disagree with that decision.”

Ultimately 11 Republicans decided to back McConnell and let the measure advance to a final vote: Sens. John Barrasso, Wyoming; Roy Blunt, Missouri; Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia; Susan Collins, Maine; John Cornyn, Texas; Mitch McConnell, Kentucky; Lisa Murkowski, Alaska; Rob Portman, Ohio; Mike Rounds, South Dakota; Richard C. Shelby, Alabama; and John Thune, South Dakota.

The 61-38 cloture vote was on the House-passed debt limit suspension bill, with the one-sentence amendment by Senate leaders to raise the borrowing cap by $480 billion. Democrats then supplied the 50 votes needed for final passage, with zero Republicans supporting the measure.

Wiggle room

The temporary debt ceiling boost is intended to tide Treasury over until around Dec. 3, which is also the date the current stopgap funding law expires. But senators said Thursday there would likely be enough wiggle room from incoming tax receipts and other accounting tools to buy additional time, perhaps postponing the next debt limit deadline into early 2022.

The agreement follows months of posturing on the debt limit and multiple warnings from Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen that the country could face an economic crisis if Congress didn’t act before Oct. 18.

Democrats added a suspension of the debt limit through Dec. 16, 2022, to a must-pass government funding bill last month, but Republicans in the Senate blocked it on the cloture vote. They also blocked attempts by Schumer to advance the original House-passed bill that would have suspended the debt limit through the same date.

McConnell remains adamant that Democrats must address the debt limit through the budget reconciliation process they are using to advance much of their domestic agenda, including climate change, paid family leave and education initiatives.

The two reached a tentative agreement Wednesday afternoon to move a short-term debt limit bill, though final agreement didn’t come together until Thursday morning, when Schumer announced the “good news” on the floor.

Republicans then had to decide among themselves if they would allow Democrats to move directly to a simple majority passage vote, requiring agreement among all of their members, or set a time agreement to hold a cloture vote that would require at least 10 GOP senators to vote “yes.”

The bill now goes to the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a letter to colleagues Thursday that “if it is necessary for Members to return early,” Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer “will give sufficient notice as promised.”

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