The U.S. Senate took a step toward raising the federal government’s $28.9 trillion debt limit on Thursday when it voted to limit debate on the first of two necessary measures, as the Treasury Department urged action by next week.
Fourteen Republican senators joined the Senate’s 48 Democrats and two independents in voting to advance the first of two bills needed to increase the Treasury Department’s borrowing authority under a deal crafted by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
The Senate voted 64-36 to clear the way for passage of the bill setting up the fast-track procedure.
The chamber could vote on the bill itself, which sets the fast-track rules to raise the debt limit, as early as Friday. If that bill passes, both chambers of Congress would need to vote next week on a second bill actually raising the debt limit.
President Joe Biden is expected to sign both bills into law if they pass.
The House of Representatives on Tuesday approved this first bill to sidestep the Senate’s “filibuster” rule and ultimately raise federal borrowing authority by a simple majority vote.
“I’m optimistic that after today’s vote we will be on a glide-path to avoid a catastrophic default,” Schumer said in a speech to the Senate.
The Schumer-McConnell deal on the debt ceiling is contained in legislation that would avoid funding cuts for Medicare, the government health insurance program for the elderly, which has wide bipartisan support.
The deal comes just two months after Congress agreed on a short-term lift to the debt ceiling, to avert an unprecedented default by the federal government on its obligations, which would have catastrophic implications for the world economy.
Republicans have been trying to withhold their votes for more borrowing authority, contending the increase would smooth the way for passage of President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion “Build Back Better” domestic investment bill, which they oppose.
Democrats note that the legislation is needed to finance debt largely incurred during Donald Trump’s administration, when Republicans willingly jacked up Washington’s credit card bill by about $7.85 trillion, partly through sweeping tax cuts and spending to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
But most Senate Republicans, looking to score political points by blaming Democrats for spending, opposed the deal. Republicans contend that “irresponsible,” “socialist” spending pushed by Biden is fueling the need for the debt limit increase.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has urged Congress to act by Dec. 15, and the Bipartisan Policy Center think thank warned last week that the government could risk default by late this month if Congress does not act.
Democrats noted that they had voted in the past to authorize debt ceiling hikes to cover Republican measures, such as the Trump tax cuts.
The draft bill still must plug in a dollar amount for the new statutory debt limit, which likely is being calibrated to give the government enough borrowing authority to extend beyond next November’s congressional elections.
“Every single Senate Democrat will have to put their name to the gigantic dollar amount of debt they’re prepared to pile on the American people,” McConnell said in a speech on Wednesday.