WASHINGTON — Some GOP senators appear willing to truncate the cumbersome budget reconciliation process to allow Democrats to raise the debt ceiling on their own before running into the Treasury Department’s Oct. 18 deadline.
But Democrats remain opposed to using the budget procedure to pass the measure with a simple majority vote, which would still require multiple markups and floor amendments and interrupt next week’s scheduled recess.
“We’re not doing it on reconciliation,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said after his party’s caucus lunch on Tuesday.
“I do not think it is possible on a timeline that would not jeopardize the full faith and credit of the United States. It would be the height of irresponsibility. We’re in the danger zone right now,” added fellow Virginia Democrat Mark Warner.
Democrats adopted a fiscal 2022 budget resolution in August that allows them to use the filibuster-proof procedure to pass a sweeping spending and tax package. They declined to include “instructions” for a reconciliation bill to raise the debt limit.
But Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., secured a parliamentary opinion enabling Democrats to reopen the budget blueprint and add more reconciliation instructions, including possibly for the debt ceiling.
While that process entails multiple procedural hoops — including a Senate Budget markup and votes on a revised budget in both chambers, followed by a markup and votes in both chambers on the reconciliation bill — some experts say it could feasibly be wrapped up within 10 days.
And in any event, Republicans across the political spectrum from moderate Alaskan Lisa Murkowski to conservative Texan Ted Cruz on Tuesday said Republicans may limit stalling tactics the minority can employ to drag out the process.
Cruz said time agreements are commonplace and didn’t rule out GOP acquiescence in speeding up votes on a debt limit reconciliation bill.
“It would depend on the circumstance; we have all sorts of time agreements on all sorts of matters,” he said. “The only end place for this political theater is going to be complete surrender by Chuck Schumer and he knows this.”
Murkowski is one of a few Republicans who haven’t ruled out voting to suspend the debt ceiling. “I 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 Tuesday, adding it was “a possibility” that the GOP would help expedite the reconciliation process.
“Again, what we’ve got to figure out is how we don’t come up against this limit and cause the anxiety that everyone is justifiably afraid of,” Murkowski said.
Schumer on Monday night teed up House-passed legislation to suspend the debt limit through Dec. 16, 2022 for a Wednesday cloture vote.
“Let me say that again so all of my Republican colleagues can hear it and the American people can hear it loud and clear: Tomorrow’s vote is simply a cloture vote. Tomorrow’s vote is not a vote to raise the debt ceiling,” Schumer said on the floor Tuesday. “It’s, rather, a procedural step to let Democrats raise the debt ceiling on our own.”
For now, Republicans seem likely to block that measure from advancing given the 60-vote threshold.
Warner declined to comment on a potential “plan B” in that scenario, other than for Republicans to drop their objections and let Democrats clear the legislation with a simple majority. “Let us get the vote by 50 tomorrow,” Warner said of his plan B.
Schumer has also been adamant about not using reconciliation, though some other influential Democrats have declined to rule it out, including Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and swing vote Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.
On Tuesday, Schumer again downplayed the use of reconciliation but left himself a little wiggle room. “Reconciliation is a drawn-out, convoluted process. We’ve shown the best way to go,” he said, referring to seeking consent from Republicans to drop the 60-vote cloture threshold. “We’re moving forward in that direction.”
Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen on Tuesday avoided getting into the procedural debate playing out at the Capitol, but she stressed that Oct. 18 remains a deadline in her view. Some independent forecasters have said Treasury could make it several more days, while stressing the uncertainty of cash flows makes it difficult to predict.
“It’s really up to Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and Leader Schumer to figure out how to get this done in Congress,” Yellen told CNBC. What I can tell you is that it’s utterly essential that this be done, I’ve said that by the 18th of October we will be out of extraordinary measures, have limited cash and likely to be exhausted very quickly. And so, I do regard Oct. 18 as a deadline.”
Friday was a major drain on the Treasury as benefit payments for Social Security, Medicare, veterans and other programs went out, according to the agency’s latest report.
Altogether, Treasury’s cash balance dropped by about $83 billion on Friday, or nearly 40 percent, with about $132 billion remaining. That’s not counting a separate $114 billion payment Treasury had to make on Friday to the Pentagon’s military retirement fund.
For the time being, there doesn’t appear to be anything Senate Republicans want in exchange for their votes on cloture. In 2015, 2018 and 2019, for example, the two parties compromised on discretionary spending caps with roughly equal increases in defense and nondefense programs, attaching those limits to debt ceiling suspensions.
This time, Senate Republicans aren’t entertaining that scenario. “Can I give you a short answer? No,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Tuesday.
“I think this is bigger than that, because of the COVID experience and spending all these trillions of dollars and adding to the national debt, which is aligned together with all these other spending programs fueling inflation and leading to undesirable policy outcomes,” Cornyn said. “So I think it’s a bigger issue than just parity on defense and domestic spending.”
Another potential way out of the debt limit impasse might be to “go nuclear” and drop the legislative filibuster threshold to a simple majority by changing Senate rules.
Moderates like Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., oppose getting rid of the filibuster, but it remains a topic of discussion, including when it comes to the debt ceiling.
“Talk to leadership,” Kaine said when asked about the possibility. “But we’re resolved that we’re not going to allow the United States to default.”
(David Lerman and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.)
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