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Debt limit rule adopted after Democrats ride to rescue

GOP leaders lost 29 of their members on procedural vote; 52 Democrats voted for the rule

House Minority Whip Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass., conducts a news conference on the debt ceiling on Wednesday.
House Minority Whip Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass., conducts a news conference on the debt ceiling on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

​The House adopted a rule for floor debate on the debt ceiling and spending curbs package after Democrats flooded in to keep the measure on track at the last minute.

The rule vote sets up the bill to pass Wednesday night as Congress faces a June 5 deadline to lift the nation’s $31.4 trillion borrowing cap. Republican leaders ultimately lost 29 of their members on the procedural vote and the rule looked set to go down as the gavel was about to fall.

At that moment, Democrats started to cast their votes in favor and in some cases, flipping from a “no” to a “yes”. In the end, 52 Democrats voted for the rule and it was adopted on a 241-187 vote — much more lopsided than it seemed it would be just minutes earlier.

Both parties’ leadership endorsed the bill this week, predicting it would get the necessary votes despite defections from the right and left. But procedural votes on the terms of debate are customarily party-line affairs, and Republican leaders faced a revolt from hard-line conservatives opposed to the deal.

That meant wooing some Democrats to cross the aisle and back the rule was necessary to offset GOP losses on the procedural vote Wednesday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, House Democrats signaled they were prepared to play hardball on the rule, despite receiving a pitch from key White House officials to support the underlying package.

“The majority is responsible for passing the rule,” Minority Whip Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts told reporters after a Democratic Caucus meeting. Just before the rule vote, Clark’s office sent a notice out to Democratic members urging them to vote “no.”

But in the end, Democrats were looking for a show of support from the GOP side of the aisle and emphasized the importance of avoiding a debt ceiling breach, which could lead to a U.S. credit downgrade, spiking interest rates and steep spending cuts.

After they saw a wide majority of Republicans back the rule, a range of Democrats including senior members of the party and centrists who back the debt limit agreement voted “yes.”

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said lawmakers on his side acted out of concern for the U.S. economy and wanted to back up President Joe Biden. “That’s exactly what House Democrats did today and bailed out the majority from their own extremism,” the New York Democrat said.

Rep. Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts said the party’s strategy had been to put up enough votes to get the rule over the finish line after seeing whether Republicans had secured significant support. Once that happened, any Democrats were free to switch their votes to back the rule.

“We needed an act of good faith on their side, which I think is fair,” said Neal, the top Ways and Means Committee Democrat. Neal, who crossed the aisle to support the rule, pointed to criticism of the budding agreement from some conservative Republicans before a deal was even struck.

Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin said some Democrats — including members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus — had been discussing for several days that they’d ultimately step in to help on a rule vote because it was clear that Republicans wouldn’t have the votes themselves.

Slotkin, who’s running for the Senate seat that’s open in 2024 due to Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow‘s retirement, said while the deal wasn’t perfect “we weren’t gonna let our country go off a fiscal cliff and that had to be our guiding force.”

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., the Rules Committee ranking member, said that lack of GOP support for the rule could be a sign of “coming attractions” on future votes, given that such defections are typically rare.

“If you’re in the majority, you have the responsibility of running this place and and he seems to have a problem being able to do that,” McGovern said, referring to Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Rules Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., downplayed the vote’s significance, pointing out that a majority of Democrats voted “no” on a rule for consideration of a deal Biden brokered.

‘Interesting negotiation’

With tight margins, GOP leadership could afford to lose only a handful of Republican votes without tanking the rule, which would send the debt ceiling package back to the drawing board with little time to spare. Unless, that is, they got some help from Democrats.

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., chair of the New Democrat Coalition, earlier in the day said the group of more than 90 centrist Democrats didn’t plan to support the rule.

“Oh, they’ll need help,” she said of Republican leadership.“We don’t intend to support it. It’s their bill — it’s their rule.”

Kuster ultimately voted “no” on the rule.

Earlier in the day, some other Democrats viewed the pickle GOP leaders were in as an opportunity.

“If Republicans can’t fulfill the responsibility, it’s going to be interesting to see what they’re willing to offer Leader Jeffries to incent some Democratic support for the rule, because it shouldn’t happen naturally,” said Bill Foster, D-Ill. “I hope there are enough responsible Republicans to pass it, but if not, then we anticipate an interesting negotiation.”

Foster was later among the 52 Democrats who voted for the rule.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer said leaving Democrats’ morning meeting that he didn’t know yet whether he’d vote for the rule on the floor. The New Jersey Democrat co-leads the Problem Solvers Caucus that endorsed the debt limit bill on Wednesday and ultimately represented a contingent of “yes” votes on the rule, including Gottheimer’s.

Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., is another Problem Solver who voted for the rule. “I’m pleased to be amongst the adults in the room,” he said.

Budget commission

While it’s not part of the debt limit bill, McCarthy earlier in the day floated a plan to create a bipartisan commission to study the federal budget and recommend additional proposals to reduce deficits.

The Congressional Budget Office said Tuesday that at most, the measure might cut deficits by $2.1 trillion over a decade. That’s less than half of what the initial House GOP-backed debt limit package would have achieved.

Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves, who helped lead debt limit negotiations on McCarthy’s behalf, acknowledged that such fiscal commissions have a mixed record over the years. But he added that debt limit talks showed how complicated it is to squeeze spending cuts from annual discretionary spending.

Some large programs with mandatory funding like Social Security and Medicare were taken off the table in the talks.

Graves said he’s talked to “a number” of lawmakers about such a commission in recent days.

“I do think that taking a commission to look long-term at structural budget changes both on the discretionary and mandatory side is absolutely critical if we’re going to get to a place where we need to be,” Graves said. “And it’s going to take long-term planning, not crunching everything into a two-week negotiation.”

North Carolina GOP Rep. Patrick T. McHenry added that the negotiations around the debt limit bill didn’t include a budgetary commission because Republicans want a “workable commission” that produces better outcomes. He said previous attempts have failed to make real structural changes.

“What we didn’t want to do is foist on these negotiations a half-baked idea,” said McHenry, who along with Graves was a lead negotiator for McCarthy. “We wanted this to . . . be more deeply contemplated.”

Phillips said after Wednesday’s rule vote that he hopes Congress creates a fiscal commission, but said how it is set up will be important and that a mechanism for forcing Congress to vote on its proposals was necessary. The Problems Solvers Caucus released a debt limit framework in April that included the creation of a fiscal commission.

McHenry and Graves said there were several discussion areas in addition to the budgetary commission that didn’t make it into the debt limit agreement, but that lawmakers may still try to advance.

They pointed to bipartisan interest in changes to the Defense Department’s procurement process to make defense spending more efficient and an energy package that could address permitting for projects, transmission and pipelines.

Graves added that Republicans still view measures to address immigration at the southern border and their effort to force a repeal of clean energy tax credits from Democrats’ August climate, health and tax law as “very, very much on the table.”

“I also want to remind you that this debt issue is going to be ripe again in about 18 months,” he said, when the bill’s debt limit suspension expires in 2025.

David Lerman contributed to this report.

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