Congress sends bill to Biden to avert government shutdown


The House on Thursday passed legislation to prevent a government shutdown with only hours to spare before the midnight deadline, albeit without any measure to avert a debt default in a few weeks.

Lawmakers voted 254-175 to send the bill, which keeps the federal government funded through Dec. 3, to President Biden for his signature. Thirty-four Republicans voted with all Democrats in support of the bill. 

The House last week passed the same bill along party lines, but with a provision that suspended the debt limit until mid-December of next year. 

The Senate failed to advance the original House-passed bill on Monday due to Republicans’ insistence that they will not vote to prevent a debt default, which Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said could happen after Oct. 18 if Congress doesn’t act in time.

Faced with the prospect of a government shutdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Democrats ultimately opted to detach the debt limit suspension from the government funding bill. 

The Senate voted 65-35 earlier Thursday afternoon to send the stopgap government funding bill back to the House without any provision to address the debt limit. 

“This bill is not a permanent solution. I look forward to soon beginning negotiations with my counterparts across the aisle and across the Capitol to complete full-year government funding bills that reverse decades of disinvestment,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). 

The bill also includes $28.6 billion to provide localities with assistance to recover from recent natural disasters, including recent hurricanes and wildfires, as well as $6.3 billion for Afghan refugee resettlement efforts. 

Republicans are calling on Democrats to prevent a debt default by using the budget reconciliation process, which is the same procedural route planned for the party’s “human infrastructure” package to expand social safety net programs like paid family leave and child care.  

Unlike almost every other bill that reaches the Senate floor, legislation considered under budget reconciliation is exempt from the filibuster that requires at least 60 votes to advance. Democrats also took advantage of budget reconciliation earlier this year to get Biden’s COVID-19 relief package through Congress without needing GOP support.  

“Senate Republicans have been totally transparent. We’ve given Democrats a step-by-step guide to governing in this environment and months of advance notice to get it done,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reiterated Thursday.  

But Democrats warn that using the reconciliation process to prevent a debt default — which historically has been addressed with bipartisan support through regular order — is an unnecessarily complex and time-consuming process that might not be ready before the Oct. 18 deadline. 

Using the reconciliation process to address the debt limit would require additional action in committees, ping-ponging the bill between the two chambers and lengthy voting sessions in the Senate known as a “vote-a-rama” in which senators can offer unlimited amendments.  

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have insisted that using reconciliation isn’t a realistic option. 

“We cannot afford the risk of a drawn-out, unpredictable process sought by the minority leader, which could very well actually cause a default,” Schumer said.

It’s not clear what other options Democrats will pursue. The House passed a standalone bill largely along party lines on Wednesday to suspend the debt limit through mid-December 2022, but it’s expected to run into the same GOP stonewall in the Senate. 

Raising or suspending the debt limit allows the Treasury Department to generate more cash to pay off existing obligations already enacted by lawmakers. 

Yellen testified before a House committee on Thursday that she supports abolishing the federal debt limit altogether, arguing that it's a “very destructive” threat to U.S. obligations. 

While Democrats managed to avoid one potential crisis in the form of a government shutdown while they control both chambers of Congress and the White House, they’re still staring down other clashes with no resolution in sight.

Aside from the debt limit deadline on Oct. 18, centrist and progressive Democrats remain at odds over reaching some form of agreement on the social safety net expansions.

House Democratic leaders have also scheduled a vote for Thursday at the behest of centrists on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill that invests in roads, bridges and transit programs, but it’s unclear it can pass due to progressives threatening to withhold their votes as leverage for the social spending package.

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