A divided U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to suspend the $31.4 trillion debt ceiling yesterday (May 31), with majority support from both Democrats and Republicans to overcome opposition from hardline conservatives and avoid a catastrophic default.
The Republican-controlled House voted 314-117 to send the legislation to the Senate, which must enact the measure and get it to President Joe Biden’s desk before a Monday deadline, when the federal government is expected to run out of money to pay its bills.
Biden expects to have the bill on his desk in time to avoid a default that would cripple the U.S. economy and unsettle world financial markets.
The measure, a compromise between Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, drew opposition from 71 hardline Republicans. That would normally be enough to block partisan legislation, but 165 Democrats backed the measure and pushed it through.
Republicans control the House by a narrow 222-213 majority.
The legislation suspends – in essence, temporarily removes – the federal government’s borrowing limit through Jan. 1, 2025. The timeline allows Biden and Congress to set aside the politically risky issue until after the November 2024 presidential election.
It would also cap some government spending over the next two years, speed up the permitting process for certain energy projects, claw back unused COVID-19 funds and expand work requirements for food aid programs to additional recipients.
Hardline Republicans had wanted deeper spending cuts and more stringent reforms.
“At best, we have a two-year spending freeze that’s full of loopholes and gimmicks,” said Representative Chip Roy, a prominent member of the hardline House Freedom Caucus.
Progressive Democrats – who along with Biden had resisted negotiating over the debt ceiling – oppose the bill for a few reasons, including new work requirements from some federal anti-poverty programs.
“Republicans are forcing us to decide which vulnerable Americans get to eat or they’ll throw us into default. It’s just plain wrong,” said Democratic Representative Jim McGovern on Wednesday.
Late on Tuesday, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said the legislation would result in $1.5 trillion in savings over a decade. That is below the $4.8 trillion in savings that Republicans aimed for in a bill they passed through the House in April, and also below the $3 trillion in deficit that Biden’s proposed budget would have reduced over that time through new taxes.
In the Senate, leaders of both parties said they hoped to move to enact the legislation before the weekend. But a potential delay over amendment votes could complicate matters.
Republicans said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could need to allow votes on Republican amendments to ensure quick action.
But Schumer appeared to rule out amendments on Wednesday, telling reporters: “We cannot send anything back to the House, plain and simple. We must avoid default.”
Senate debate and voting could stretch into the weekend, especially if any one of the 100 senators tries to slow passage.
Hardline Republican Senator Rand Paul, long known for delaying important Senate votes, has said he would not hold up passage if allowed to offer an amendment for a floor vote.
Senator Bernie Sanders, a progressive independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said he would oppose the bill due to inclusion of an energy pipeline and extra work requirements. “I cannot, in good conscience, vote for the debt ceiling deal,” Sanders said on Twitter.
In a win for Republicans, the bill would shift some funding away from the Internal Revenue Service, although the White House says that should not undercut tax enforcement.
Biden can point to gains as well
The deal leaves his signature infrastructure and green-energy laws largely intact, and the spending cuts and work requirements are far less than Republicans had sought.
Republicans have argued that steep spending cuts are necessary to curb the growth of the national debt, which at $31.4 trillion is roughly equal to the annual output of the economy.
Interest payments on that debt are projected to eat up a growing share of the budget as an aging population pushes up health and retirement costs, according to government forecasts. The deal would not do anything to rein in those fast-growing programs.
Most of the savings would come by capping spending on domestic programs like housing, education, scientific research and other forms of “discretionary” spending. Military spending would be allowed to increase over the next two years.
The debt-ceiling standoff prompted ratings agencies to warn that they might downgrade U.S. debt, which underpins the global financial system.
Credit rating agency DBRS Morningstar put the United States on review for a possible downgrade last week, echoing similar warnings by Fitch, Moody’s and Scope Ratings. Another agency, S&P Global, downgraded U.S. debt following a similar debt-ceiling standoff in 2011.
The last time the U.S. came this close to default was in 2011, a time of similar partisan divide in Washington, with a Democratic president and Senate majority and a Republican-majority House.