Senate clears key hurdle toward lifting the debt ceiling, avoiding default

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Thursday to break a filibuster and advance a bill that will enable the U.S. to lift the debt ceiling and avert a default on the country’s debt.

The procedural vote advanced 64-36, with 14 Republicans joining all Democrats on the bill, which also averts automatic cuts to Medicare that lawmakers largely agree should be avoided.

The bill has already cleared the House. It is likely to gain final passage in the Senate by Friday morning and go to President Joe Biden’s desk.

The 14 Republican Senators who joined Democrats were: John Barrasso, of Wyoming, Roy Blunt, of Missouri, Richard Burr, of North Carolina, Shelley Moore Capito, of West Virginia, Susan Collins, of Maine, John Cornyn, of Texas, Joni Ernst, of Iowa, Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, Rob Portman, of Ohio, Mitt Romney, of Utah, John Thune, of South Dakota, Thom Tillis, of North Carolina, and Roger Wicker, of Mississippi.

After it’s signed into law, it would create a special process to suspend the filibuster on a one-time basis and enable the Senate to skip the 60-vote threshold for the purposes of lifting the debt ceiling. That means it can be done with only Democratic votes and a tiebreaker from Vice President Kamala Harris in the Senate — all within a day.

The Treasury Department has set a Dec. 15 deadline to extend the country’s borrowing authority, warning of catastrophic economic consequences if Congress fails to act in time.

The legislation is the product of negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader McConnell that satisfies demands from both parties by creating a complicated process to perform the simple task of lifting the debt ceiling.

McConnell gets to minimize the GOP fingerprint on a debt limit increase, which Republicans are hoping to weaponize in the 2022 midterm election, as the process would force Democrats to raise it to a dollar amount (rather than suspend it to a particular date).

Democrats are discussing an debt ceiling hike somewhere between $2 trillion and $3 trillion, with the goal of extending it until after the 2022 contests, two sources told NBC News.

Murkowski said the process is “not ideal” but “it’s the right thing to do.”

“Because the last thing in the world this country needs is a default. And so we’ve set up a process to avoid default,” Murkowski told reporters as she walked off the Senate floor.

And Democrats were able to avoid using the budget reconciliation process to do it on a purely partisan basis, which they said would be arduous. Instead, they can now argue the GOP assisted with the process.

A debt ceiling increase does not add to the national debt. It enables Congress to pay bills it has accrued and meet obligations for red ink created by both parties over decades.

Some Republicans were skeptical of the Schumer-McConnell deal.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said that suspending the filibuster in this manner would create “disturbing precedent” as it “opens the door for Democrats to try to do that in the future” on progressive priorities.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said Democrats should create more exemptions on issues like voting rights legislation, although further exemptions would again require 60 votes to create in the same way.

“This is an exception to the filibuster. And the Republicans have just signed on. It’s proof that it’s possible to create exceptions to the filibuster and move forward when it’s important,” Warren told NBC News. “Do it once, let’s do it twice.”

Frank Thorp V and Molly Hudson contributed.

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