Senate Republicans blocked a House-passed bill on Monday that would have averted a government shutdown as well as an unprecedented default on U.S. debt holdings that could roil financial markets and disrupt basic government operations.
The vote on the measure fell along party lines, well short of the 60 needed to advance. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) changed his vote to “no” at the last minute, a procedural move that allows him to bring the bill up for a vote again.
“The Republican Party has solidified itself as the party of default, and it will be the American people who pay the price,” Schumer said afterward. He called the vote “one of the most reckless, one of the most irresponsible votes I have seen taken place in the Senate.”
What happens next regarding government funding, the more immediate problem, is unclear. The government is funded through Sept. 30, meaning lawmakers only have a few days to act before the federal government begins furloughing workers in the middle of a pandemic.
The House voted last week to fund the government through Dec. 3 and suspend the debt ceiling, the legal limit on the amount of money the government can borrow, through December 2022. But Senate Republicans have refused to back an increase to the debt ceiling despite helping to rack up trillions of dollars in debt under the previous administration.
With Republicans dug in over the debt limit and unwilling to bend to pressure from top White House officials and business leaders, Democrats will likely be forced to take up a bill with GOP support that funds the government through December and leaves the debt ceiling issue unresolved ― for now.
“I think Republicans will offer a clean continuing resolution that funds the government ... there would be a lot of Republican votes for that,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said Sunday during an interview with CNN.
The Treasury Department has said the government will run out of cash and will be unable to pay its bills sometime next month. The exact date is unclear, adding to uncertainty and the risk that lawmakers will run out time before they can avoid a financial calamity.
Republicans say Democrats should raise the debt ceiling on their own by amending their ambitious social spending and climate proposal, the Build Back Better Act, which they are attempting to advance in the House this week. Republicans are fiercely opposed to the legislation ― which includes money for child care, education, affordable housing and more. They argue that Democrats should bear singular responsibility for the debt limit because of the bill’s future impact on the deficit, even though most of it is to be paid for with tax hikes on the wealthy.
Amending the bill to include a debt limit hike may take a few weeks due to procedural rules in the Senate and likely GOP objections that could slow the process down even further. The House Budget Committee chairman, John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), said last week that there may not be enough time for Democrats to do so — and that an adverse ruling by the Senate parliamentarian could make it impossible.
“Our staff research shows that it is very risky to try and amend our existing budget reconciliation bill,” Yarmuth told HuffPost. “There’s a real risk that the parliamentarian would rule the entire thing out of order.”
There’s also no guarantee that Democrats will be able to pass the bill in time before the U.S. triggers a debt default. The party is divided over its policies and revenue provisions, with progressives in the House threatening to sink the bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate passed earlier this year if moderates refuse to support the second piece of their agenda.
If Democrats did come to a quick agreement on their spending bill, and decided to address the debt as part of it, the process of amending their original resolution to include a debt ceiling provision would involve a series of Senate votes ― which could take a long time if Republicans insisted on maximum delay.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said it would only take a week to add the debt ceiling to the budget. Yarmuth said it would take “significantly longer.”
Republicans would consider not delaying the process as much as possible if Democrats decide to deal with the debt limit on their own, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told HuffPost.
“It seems to me that that would largely satisfy our desire to make sure that they’re the ones who are responsible for it,” Cornyn said.
In addition to a potential shutdown and debt default this year, Democrats could be facing next year’s midterm elections with little to show to voters in Congress ― a dream scenario for Republicans, who are already salivating over President Joe Biden’s sagging poll numbers.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) urged her caucus to unite and pass both pieces of legislation during an interview on Sunday.
“We have to find our common ground, [be] respectful of each other’s views,” Pelosi said on ABC’s “This Week.” “But this isn’t about moderates vs. progressives. Overwhelmingly, the entirety of our caucus, except for a few whose judgment I respect, support the vision of Joe Biden. And we will pass ― make progress on it this week.”