As Republicans play debt limit brinksmanship, nation barrels toward default


(WASHINGTON) — As the nation barrels toward default, Republicans are poised to sink a Democratic effort to suspend the federal borrowing limit.

Republicans in the Senate are filibustering a House-passed measure that would suspend the debt limit until December 2022. At least 10 Republicans would need to join all Senate Democrats to break a GOP filibuster and allow a simple majority vote to pass the bill.

Democrats argue that this would give Republicans exactly what they’re asking for: an increase to the nation’s borrowing limit approved solely by Democrats.

“Tomorrow’s vote is not a vote to raise the debt ceiling. It’s, rather, a procedural step to let Democrats raise the debt ceiling on our own,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday. “We’re telling Republicans that we’re not asking you to vote for it, just let us vote for it.”

But Republicans aren’t backing down. They’ve maintained for months that Democrats must act to raise the federal debt limit on their own, because they have total control of Washington and are planning to pass a multi-trillion social and economic package with zero input from Republicans.

“They said they’re perfectly prepared to do the job themselves,” Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell insisted to reporters Tuesday. “The easiest way to do that is through the reconciliation process as I pointed out for two months.”

McConnell, R-Ky., has said repeatedly that Democrats should have to hike the debt limit to cover the cost of potentially trillions in yet-passed parts of President Joe Biden’s agenda, though the debt limit must be raised to cover spending that already took place under the Trump administration with unified GOP support.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told ABC News on Tuesday he won’t support moving forward on a vote.

“We are not going to empower a radical march toward socialism,” Graham, the top Republican on the Budget Committee, said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Senate budget committee chairman, floated a potential solution that would involve temporarily suspending the chamber’s filibuster rules that require 60 votes for most legislation.

“Where it may come down to is a demand that at least for the debt ceiling that we end the filibuster … and pass it with 51 votes,” Sanders suggested.

But the 50-member Democratic caucus would have to remain unified to do this, and both moderates Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema have balked at any changes to the filibuster rules.

No Republican has yet gone on the record to say he or she is prepared to join Democrats to clear the way for a final vote on the debt limit Wednesday, though moderate Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, opened the door to potentially joining the majority.

“I want to make sure 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,” Murkowski said. “We have to make sure. We just have to ensure.”

The nation technically hit the debt ceiling Aug. 1, with the Treasury Department using extraordinary measures to pay the nation’s bills. But Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that by Oct. 18, her department’s efforts would be fully exhausted and default would be all but certain.

Pressure is mounting alongside partisan gridlock, with no backup plan emerging.

McConnell and his conference are insisting that Democrats use a fast-track budget tool called reconciliation that allows the majority to break a filibuster to pass certain legislation. Use of this arcane process is cumbersome, could take weeks and opens up Democrats to a series of potentially politically painful votes.

But there could be an added political benefit for Republicans in insisting that this process be used. It would put Democrats on the record raising the debt ceiling by a hefty dollar amount, whereas Wednesday’s vote — simply suspending the debt limit by no specified amount — does not. That would feed into the GOP narrative that Democrats are out-of-control spenders.

“We’re very interested in a specific dollar amount,” Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said Tuesday. “They’re going to have to come before the American people and say, ‘We’re going to increase the debt ceiling by X amount, because this is the amount we intend to spend’, and one way or another, it puts them on the record as to their spending proposals.”

Some Democrats say they’d support using reconciliation if it meant a swift resolution of the debt limit issue. Manchin said the process should be considered, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told reporters that “everything should be on the table” when pressed on whether the fast-track budget tool should be considered.

But each passing day limits the time Democrats would have to fast track a debt ceiling increase through the multi-step process to final passage, and Democrats tell ABC News that no work has begun on the reconciliation process, even behind the scenes.

“No, not at the moment,” Sanders told ABC News.

Some Democrats were more emphatic.

“Reconciliation was never on the table,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said. “There’s not enough time to make reconciliation work.”

But on Tuesday, Schumer did not expressly rule it out.

When asked if he was ruling out using the budget process, Schumer repeatedly referenced the Wednesday vote as the preferred way to go about hiking the debt cap.

“Reconciliation is a drawn out, convoluted process. We’ve shown the best way to go. We’re moving forward in that direction,” Schumer said, refusing to entertain a Plan B.

If the nation defaults, the results are sure to be catastrophic. The White House has warned that an unprecedented default could send shockwaves through the global economy and trigger a recession. The political implications for both parties are unclear.

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