Republicans are set to hinder Democrats' efforts to stave off a government default.
It seems likely Democrats will need to lift the debt ceiling on their own, via a reconciliation bill.
Some Republican senators are prepared to draw out the process to inflict pain on Democrats.
Republicans are blocking attempts by Democrats to renew the US's ability to pay its bills, pushing the US closer to the precipice of default.
Congress has just 16 days to raise or suspend the debt ceiling to dodge what could be a catastrophic hit to the economy, ranging from delays in Social Security checks to seniors, turmoil in financial markets, and cuts to safety net programs like unemployment insurance and Medicaid. The world's trust in the dollar would fade. Interest rates would soar, lifting mortgage, car loan, and credit card payments. Ratings agency S&P would cut its rating to the worst-possible rank of D.
Raising the debt ceiling allows the US government to pay back what it owes, and the limit had to be lifted this year regardless of Biden's spending plans. Democrats are pressing Republicans to help raise it, arguing both parties racked up another $7.8 trillion in new debt under the Trump administration. Republicans also raised or suspended the debt limit three times under President Donald Trump.
Now that Biden is in office, the GOP is reversing course and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is spearheading the GOP drive to demand Democrats lift the limit on their own, escalating efforts to undermine President Joe Biden's domestic agenda.
Democrats' attempts to shame McConnell into caving have failed so far. At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday that Democrats "cannot and will not" use budget reconciliation to solve the problem.
The clock is ticking with no signs of a resolution to the impasse.
Republicans ready a salvo of time-consuming amendments
Even if Schumer changes his mind, some Republicans are preparing to drag out the process to inflict maximum pain on Democrats as they start negotiating changes to a $3.5 trillion social spending package. They will have many opportunities to do this, since Democrats' best bet for lifting the ceiling on their own is reconciliation, an arduous, time-consuming procedure governed by strict budgetary rules. It also allows certain bills to be passed with just a 50-vote majority.
Some experts say it would require at least two weeks for a party-line debt-limit hike to succeed. Part of it includes the so-called vote-a-rama, which forces lawmakers to take politically uncomfortable votes back to back in an event that can last for over 12 hours.
Some Republicans already expect to delay a Democrat-only debt limit increase with amendments of their own.
"We plan to use the rules and also to slow down a lot of really bad policy that will forever transform the country," Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a close McConnell ally, told Insider. "I don't mind seeing them burn up some floor time on reconciliation so it makes it less likely they can pass their reckless spending bill."
"If we do have another vote-a-rama, I'm sure I will have some amendments at that point. I don't at this stage. We'll cross that bridge when we get there," Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah told Insider.
Others are less certain but still don't plan to make reconciliation any easier. If Democrats proceed with a reconciliation effort, "there will be amendments as there always are," Sen. Ted Cruz told Insider, adding Democrats will inevitably "be able to pass whatever they can get 50 votes to do."
"My personal interest is not in making the process more difficult. I don't want to make it any easier, because [Democrats] already have all the tools and authorities they need to do it themselves from start to finish," Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota told Insider.
Another rule in the process could reap political benefits for Republicans and make some Democrats squirm in next year's midterms. Reconciliation would likely require Democrats to attach a specific debt ceiling figure to demonstrate it has an effect on the federal budget.
"[Democrats] need to put a number to it," Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin told Insider. "They need to show the American public how much they're gonna have to increase the debt ceiling to accommodate their deficit spending. That's why they have to use reconciliation."
The threat of a prolonged vote-a-rama probably wouldn't be enough to kill Democrats' effort. A wave of amendments would likely only delay the final vote, and Schumer is unlikely to bring a bill to the floor if he isn't positive Democrats are unified in raising the ceiling.
Some are already breaking with Democratic leaders and urging their party to take unilateral action perhaps as soon as next week.
"Dems have all the levers. Even if [Republicans] wants to flirt with default, we're not gonna allow it," Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia told Insider, arguing Democrats shouldn't wait until the 11th hour and should "just do it" on their own.
Still, that could cement the debt ceiling as more a political bludgeon than a tool to meet financial obligations. Raising the limit had long been a bipartisan effort, and has been successfully pulled off 78 times since 1960. Republicans even enjoyed some Democratic support when they moved to suspend the ceiling in 2017.
That precedent now seems to be on its last legs. And with the debt ceiling still intact, Congress risks another last-minute showdown with grave stakes.
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