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Senate, for now, defers to Biden and McCarthy on debt talks

'At some point they have to make it to a deal,' Sen. Mike Rounds said

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks during the Senate Republicans’ news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks during the Senate Republicans’ news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senators are so far standing firm on letting Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden work out how to address the debt limit.

Even after Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said Monday that the government may be unable to pay its bills on time as soon as June 1 — several senators said that leaves enough time to find agreement and brushed off any need for a short-term patch.

“I think the longer that debt limit sword of Damocles hangs over the country’s economy and frightens investors and causes uncertainty with projects and investments, the worse off we are,” Budget Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said.

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said Congress and the White House were always going to go down to the wire with negotiations, regardless of the “x date” falling sooner than many expected.

“At some point they have to make it to a deal,” he said. “And a deal can come together very quickly once they decide that neither side gets an advantage by waiting or stalling any longer. Do I think it’s going to happen anywhere in the next day or so? The answer is no. Will it be closer to the deadline so that each side can say that they worked as hard as they could? Yes.”

Still, the mood could shift if around the end of May there’s movement toward agreement but no deal yet.

House Democrats are preparing a discharge petition to allow moderate Republicans to join them in forcing a compromise to the floor if needed, and some Senate Democrats acknowledged a short-term fix would be preferable to breaching the debt limit.

“Really what we need to do is face this directly and get it done,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said. “But obviously the most important thing is not to go over the cliff.”

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, who has so far been the lone Democrat to back Republicans’ efforts to negotiate with Biden on the debt limit, said “whatever it takes not to default is what we’ll do.”

Senators largely projected confidence that a potential early June deadline leaves enough time to come to agreement, but that still means a heavy lift this month to reach agreement and move legislation through both chambers in time.

White House meeting

Biden on Monday invited congressional leaders — McCarthy, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — to a May 9 meeting. Senators said that’s the logical next step in the process, though they offered differing hopes for that gathering.

Democrats are still calling for a “clean” debt limit increase and separate budget and spending negotiations, hoping the meeting will drill home the need to go their preferred route.

Schumer said during a news conference on Tuesday that he’ll wait to see how the May 9 meeting goes before deciding whether he’ll put a bill on the floor that would suspend the debt limit through the end of 2024, which lacks Republican support.

Republicans are hoping the White House meeting will advance the GOP’s efforts to attach spending cuts. McConnell said during a news conference on Tuesday that it’s “pretty clear” Biden can either accept a bill that House Republicans passed to increase the debt limit by $1.5 trillion or through March — whichever comes first — alongside about $4.8 trillion in deficit reduction, or he can negotiate with McCarthy.

While some suggest McConnell could enter the fray as he has in past debt limit negotiations, he said the only solution is for McCarthy and the White House to cut a deal.

Given House Republicans passed a bill to address the debt ceiling, “it should be clear to the administration that the Senate is not a relevant player this time. They have got to have a measure that can pass the House,” McConnell said. “I’m behind the speaker.”

The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, said he’s hoping White House and House GOP staff begin exchanging positions and offering options they could put on the table ahead of the May 9 meeting.

Even with the Senate largely deferring, senators appear to be thinking some about an eventual vote in the chamber.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said some senators are letting their party’s leadership know what they like or dislike among options that could be in the mix to pair with a debt limit increase, noting that McConnell has to count his votes too.

House Democrats’ off-ramp

While focus is mostly on potential Biden-McCarthy talks, House Democrats outlined a proposal Tuesday that could offer another avenue for last-ditch efforts, though it faces long odds.

House Democrats are preparing a discharge petition on a “special rule” that would allow for expedited consideration of a bipartisan bill to raise the debt limit, Jeffries said in a letter to his caucus.

Rules ranking member Jim McGovern filed the rule during Tuesday’s House pro forma session, which allows them to begin the cumbersome process of trying to discharge it to the floor against GOP leaders’ wishes.

The rule would allow for immediate consideration of a shell bill Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., introduced at the beginning of the Congress that Jeffries said “could be used as a vehicle to avert the Republican-manufactured default crisis.”

Democrats do not yet have a specific debt limit replacement measure for DeSaulnier’s shell bill. The rule would allow a substitute amendment that Ways and Means ranking member Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., introduces into the Congressional Record at least one day in advance to be automatically adopted as the new base text.

The McGovern rule, which is what Democrats are trying to discharge, would have to be adopted before any bill Neal offers could get a vote. But the rule would waive all points of order against the measure and set it up for a quick floor vote after an hour of debate.

McGovern just filed the rule on Tuesday, so he or another Democrat couldn’t move to discharge it for seven legislative days, which based on the current calendar would be May 16. At that time, Democrats can start collecting signatures on the discharge petition, which requires 218 signatures to force a floor vote.

If all 213 Democrats sign the discharge petition, they would still need five Republicans to sign it, too. Typically majority party members don’t sign minority-led discharge petitions because it’s seen as an affront to their leadership.

At the moment, McCarthy’s conference is united behind his effort to negotiate a bipartisan deal with Biden. But a prolonged stalemate could make some of the more moderate GOP members open to signing the discharge petition.

The timing of reaching 218 signatures is key because at least seven legislative days must pass after that threshold is achieved before a signing member can call it up as a privileged resolution, which forces the speaker to schedule a floor vote on it within two legislative days.

The use of legislative days gives the majority some control over the process. McCarthy could choose not to adjourn the House at the end of each calendar day and instead recess to roll over legislative days, prolonging the process and potentially running out the clock on the discharge petition. Any member could move to adjourn, but that would require a majority vote, so the Republicans signing the discharge petition would have to play ball there, too.

With Treasury’s deadline in just a few weeks, there may not be enough time for a discharge petition unless Republicans cooperate early.

“The filing of a debt ceiling measure to be brought up on the discharge calendar preserves an important option,” Jeffries wrote. “It is now time for MAGA Republicans to act in a bipartisan manner to pay America’s bills without extreme conditions.”

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