WASHINGTON—The House was set to vote Tuesday for legislation raising the U.S. borrowing limit into December, temporarily staving off a default while lawmakers battle over setting a new ceiling for U.S. debt.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif) called the House back from a week away from Washington to pass a debt-ceiling increase that cleared the Senate last week. The hasty return followed a warning from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to House Democratic leaders that if the chamber failed to act this week, the U.S. would be unable to pay its bills. The White House has said that President Biden will sign the measure into law.
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The bill would increase the debt ceiling by $480 billion, an amount that the Treasury Department has said would allow the U.S. to pay its bills through Dec. 3, assuming it had also exhausted all of its cash-conservation strategies. Goldman Sachs has projected that the money would last somewhat longer, though not past the end of the year, suggesting the U.S. has roughly two months before Congress must address the debt ceiling again.
The Democratic-led House, unified around raising the borrowing limit, is assured of enacting the measure into law because it needs only a simple majority to pass legislation. “We must lift the debt ceiling and hope that we can have a unanimous Democratic vote and perhaps a bipartisan vote to do so,” Mrs. Pelosi said in a Monday letter to colleagues.
In the letter, Mrs. Pelosi also weighed in on another challenge facing the party: how best to trim the social-policy and climate bill, initially set at $3.5 trillion, to address party centrists’ cost concerns and get it passed. “Overwhelmingly, the guidance I am receiving from Members is to do fewer things well so that we can still have a transformative impact on families in the workplace and responsibly address the climate crisis,” she wrote.
In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans have sparred for months over the terms under which Congress would raise the debt ceiling, which has become a proxy for the fight over Democrats’ plans for the multitrillion dollar healthcare, education and climate-change bill.
The debt-limit increase doesn’t authorize new spending, but instead allows the government to meet existing obligations, including interest on the debt and payments to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Republicans had tried to force Democrats to use a complicated procedure called budget reconciliation to pass an increase with no help from the GOP. The reconciliation process allows the Senate to pass legislation related to spending, taxes or the debt limit with a simple majority, skirting the 60-vote threshold for most legislation. But it also could give the Republicans some tactical advantages.
The reconciliation process is more time-consuming than passing ordinary bills—requiring two separate sets of marathon amendment-vote sessions known as “vote-a-ramas.” This would eat up time Democrats would prefer to spend on Mr. Biden’s sweeping climate and social-welfare agenda. Republicans had also hoped that by forcing a debt-ceiling increase through reconciliation procedures, the legislative maneuver would tie Democrats to increasing the debt—instead of suspending the debt limit until December 2022.
Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are poised to dive back into the same debate when they return next week. Last week’s bitter fight worsened when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) criticized Republicans on the Senate floor for the debt-ceiling crisis, comments that inflamed Republican leaders, who had just quashed a rebellion within their own ranks to raise the borrowing limit.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) called President Biden Friday to privately discuss Mr. Schumer’s criticism, according to a Senate aide, and publicized his position in a separate letter to the president. “In light of Senator Schumer’s hysterics and my grave concerns about the ways that another vast, reckless, partisan spending bill would hurt Americans and help China, I will not be a party to any future effort to mitigate the consequences of Democratic mismanagement,’’ Mr. McConnell wrote.
That leaves open the question of how Congress will navigate a path forward. The Dec. 3 deadline for raising the debt ceiling coincides with the deadline for passing legislation to avoid a partial government shutdown.
Democrats could give in to Republican demands to use the reconciliation process to raise the debt limit. Or they could try again to pick up Republican support, even though the Senate’s top Republican said that he wouldn’t again line up the votes to increase the debt-ceiling through the regular process.
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