Senate approves short-term debt ceiling increase


The Senate on Thursday approved a deal to increase the debt ceiling and keep the country solvent into December, moving to stave off a default expected to occur in a matter of days.

Senators voted 50-48 along party lines on the short-term increase in the nation’s borrowing limit. GOP Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.) and Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) didn’t vote. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) announced House lawmakers will return on Tuesday to vote on the bill, before sending it to President Biden's desk. 

Though the final vote, which required a simple majority, was along party lines, 11 Republican senators voted with Democrats to get the bill over a procedural hurdle that required 60 votes.

The Senate’s action comes a day after Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said that Republicans would let Democrats pass a short-term debt hike and just hours after Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced they had clinched a deal.  

It marked a quick end to a months-long standoff between Schumer and McConnell that had moved the country closer to a historic default. Congress has until Oct. 18 to raise the nation’s borrowing limit, or risk plummeting over the fiscal cliff with significant consequences for the world’s economy.  

Under the agreement passed by the Senate, the debt ceiling will increase by $480 billion. The Treasury Department, according to Senate aides, thinks that will set up the next deadline for Dec. 3, the same day government funding is set to expire.  

That effectively punts the debt fight until later in the year. But there was growing concern among senators in both parties that the stalemate didn’t have a clear offramp. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) urged McConnell and Schumer, who at that point had not started speaking, to start negotiating with each other to find an offramp. 

“I truly implore both leaders ... to engage, start working, work this out,” Manchin said. 

“We have a responsibility to be the adults ... we should not have these artificial crisis,” he added. “Please lead, lead, work together.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) had also signaled that she was worried about how close the country was getting to its debt “x” date, or when the country would not be able to meet its financial obligations. Though the U.S. hit the debt ceiling on Aug. 1, the Treasury Department has been using so-called extraordinary measures to keep the government solvent since then. 

“I just want to make sure … that we are doing everything that we can to not send us into a situation of default, and I don't even want to get close,” she said.  

But the lead up to the vote was filled with drama. 

McConnell and GOP senators have pushed for Democrats to pass a long-term debt hike on their own through reconciliation, a budget process that lets them bypass the 60-vote legislative filibuster. They twice blocked Democrats from passing a debt suspension into 2022, once when it was tucked into a short-term government funding bill and by preventing Schumer from bypassing the filibuster a second time. 

That led several GOP senators to fume over the decision to offer a short-term extension, arguing that McConnell caved. Because conservatives insisted on a 60-vote cloture vote, GOP leadership spent hours trying to wrangle together the votes. In the end, 11 GOP senators voted to advance the debt deal.

“So Senator McConnell has been saying for two months now that if you’re going to spend the money through reconciliation, you need to raise the debt limit through reconciliation. And there’s been a change of heart there at the last minute,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). 

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), one of the GOP senators who insisted on the 60-vote procedural hurdle, added that “Chuck Schumer won this game of chicken.”  

“As two trucks drove towards each other on a country road, one or the other was going to turn or you were going to have a lot of dead chickens. I wish Republicans hadn't blinked,” he said. 

Schumer also sparked backlash from Republicans and Manchin after he gave a fiery floor speech just after the vote to end debate and before the final vote on the debt-ceiling extension. 

Schumer, speaking from the Senate floor, accused Republicans of playing a "dangerous and risky partisan game," for insisting for weeks that Democrats use the budget process to raise the debt ceiling. 

The speech earned him an earful from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Senate Republicans. 

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) spoke with Schumer after the speech and said that, "I let him have it." 

"I thought it was totally out of line. I just thought it was an incredibly partisan speech after we had just helped him solve a problem," he said. 

Manchin also spoke with Schumer after the speech, saying that he "didn't think it was appropriate." 

"I'm sure Chuck's frustration was up, but that was not a way of taking it out," Manchin said. 

In many ways the vote sets up a repeat of the current fight for early December. 

Republicans are vowing that once the December deadline hits, Democrats will still have to use reconciliation unless their sweeping social spending bill falls apart.  

“I think in this case, what we did is we took the Democrats' main argument. An argument table which is which they didn't have enough time so you know this buys them some time,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican. 

But Schumer and many Democratic senators in his caucus have vowed for months that they will not use reconciliation. 

“Using reconciliation is a horrible precedent to set because it then will only be done in reconciliation in the future, which will make it even harder to raise the debt ceiling so I'm not going to use reconciliation because of the precedent it sets,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

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