House Republicans Pass Their Debt Ceiling Bill, But Path Ahead Unclear

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had to make some late accommodations, but one big objection to negotiations starting has been dealt with.

WASHINGTON ― House Republicans cleared a big step Wednesday in their effort to force the White House to come to the bargaining table on raising the debt limit and keeping the government from defaulting: They put their demands in a bill and passed it.

After some late-night changes to placate advocates of biofuels, House Republicans held almost all of their narrow 222-member majority together, clearing a $4.8 trillion spending cut bill that would also avoid a default on government debt.

The vote was 217 to 215.

Whether the bill will kickstart negotiations remains unclear. The White House has said it will not negotiate on the need to boost the debt limit but was open to separate budget negotiations if House Republicans could put together a written plan and show it could pass, which Republicans can now claim to have done.

“I’m happy to meet with McCarthy but not on whether or not the debt limit gets extended. That’s not negotiable,” President Joe Biden said at the White House before the vote.

The bill is also unlikely to see the Senate floor any time soon.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the late changes to the bill did not make it better, and, “if anything, this revised bill is more extreme.”

“It brings us no closer to avoiding a default on the national debt,” he said, vowing that Democrats could not and would not allow the bill to become law.

McCarthy’s late-night tweaks to bring the bill over the finish line were aimed at a bloc of Midwestern lawmakers. McCarthy edited the bill to preserve green energy tax credits benefiting the agriculture industry, taking about $39 billion in savings out of the bill, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

But one of McCarthy’s other late changes ― to have a more stringent work requirement kick in sooner for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food aid to qualifying recipients based on factors like income level and employment ― did not win over Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who provided one of the four GOP votes against the bill. Gaetz had held out Tuesday for the change.

“As our nation is careening into a $32 trillion debt, Congress shouldn’t be making final changes at 2 a.m. ― the morning of the vote ― to legislation raising the debt limit $1.5 trillion,” Gaetz said after the vote.

The goal of increasing the borrowing limit stems from current fiscal rules. Because the government’s spending exceeds its revenue from taxes, the Treasury Department has to sell debt to continue paying for basic expenses. But the current debt ceiling has already blocked further borrowing, and sometime this summer could cause the government to default on its debts, which economists say would cause a financial crisis and recession.

President Joe Biden has demanded that Congress increase the debt limit, but Republicans have asserted that they’ll do so only if Biden agrees to significant spending cuts. The president has so far refused to negotiate.

Republicans’ proposed bill would reduce federal spending by nearly $5 trillion over a decade, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate using a previous version of the text. It would also reduce enrollment in SNAP by 275,000 each month and in the health care program Medicaid by 600,000.

The change that Gaetz won would likely increase the number of people who lose SNAP benefits, which help 20 million households with their grocery costs.

Either way, Republican efforts to advance the bill are largely symbolic, since Democrats control the Senate and the White House. But the GOP hopes that its passage in the House would force Biden into a negotiation.

“We’re proud to get this bill passed this week, but it’s long past time that President Biden stop hiding, stop trying to run the clock out,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the number two House Republican, said at a news conference.

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