As Debt Ceiling Vote Looms, Democrats Reconsider Filibuster – The New York Times
WASHINGTON — With a federal default projected in less than two weeks, leading Senate Democrats increasingly see the Republican blockade against raising the federal debt limit as clear justification for changing the chamber’s filibuster rule, a long-shot effort that so far has lacked the unanimous support within their ranks needed to succeed.
President Biden, who has sent mixedsignals for months about whether he supports scrapping the filibuster, gave fresh momentum to the idea on Tuesday when he told reporters at the White House that it was a “real possibility” that Democrats could create an exception from the rules and allow the debt ceiling to be raised with a simple majority.
Republicans were expected on Wednesday to block Democrats’ latest effort to boost the legal cap on government borrowing so it can keep paying its bills, with 12 days to go until the Oct. 18 date the Treasury Department has projected for reaching the limit. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, has said Democrats, who control Congress and the presidency and are proposing trillions in future spending, must supply all the votes for such an increase, but he and other Republicans have filibustered their attempts to do so.
Under longstanding Senate rules, any single member may object to ending debate on legislation, a practice known as a filibuster that effectively stops a bill in its tracks unless proponents can muster a three-fifths majority — or 60 votes — to move it forward. In the 50-50 Senate, that means Democrats need at least 10 Republicans to join them in breaking a filibuster, on the debt ceiling measure or anything else.
Democrats, who discussed the prospect at a private lunch Tuesday before Mr. Biden’s comments, say the Republican intransigence on the debt limit has provided the best argument yet for curbing the filibuster.
“More and more people are drawing that conclusion,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat. “I think people feel the supermajority on the debt ceiling is a bridge too far.”
Yet it is not clear whether enough people are drawing that conclusion. The chief impediment to changing the filibuster has been the resistance of centrist Democratic Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and there is no indication that they have changed their stance in response to the current debt limit drama.
They argue that the procedural weapon can foster bipartisanship and provide guardrails against either party acting too extremely. Mr. Manchin earlier this week dismissed the idea of any change in the filibuster for the debt limit, but at Tuesday’s private luncheon, he and Ms. Sinema were silent on the matter. Mr. Manchin has also said the government must not be allowed to default.
Democrats urging a change in filibuster rules said they hoped the nature of the debt limit fight, with widespread warnings of global economic calamity if the government defaults and Republicans’ refusal to negotiate, would persuade the two Democrats that it was time to put aside their misgivings and act.
“Republicans are making the case more powerfully than I could a million times on the floor,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut and a longtime filibuster foe. “What they are doing is obstruction and utterly exposes the filibuster. And it is not just inconvenience. It is desperately dangerous.”
Democrats could change the rules through a series of floor maneuvers with the votes of all 50 of their members and the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. They say any “carve out” for the debt limit would apply specifically to that legislation and not extend to other measures. But any move to alter the filibuster would intensify calls to weaken it for other Democratic priorities that Republicans are uniformly blocking, notably a voting rights measure that Democrats say is urgently needed to offset efforts by Republicans at the state level to impede voting by minorities and others.
Mr. McConnell has threatened to bring the Senate to a standstill if Democrats undermine the filibuster. He has said repeatedly that Democrats should instead employ the budget process known as reconciliation to raise the debt limit, which would allow them to take advantage of rules that shield certain fiscal legislation from a filibuster.
“There is already an existing carveout where Democrats can do it themselves — it’s called reconciliation,” Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, said on Twitter.
Understand the U.S. Debt Ceiling
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What is the debt limit? The debt limit is a cap on the total amount of money that the federal government is authorized to borrow via U.S. Treasury bills and savings bonds to fulfill its financial obligations. Because the U.S. runs budget deficits, it must borrow huge sums of money to pay its bills.
When will the debt limit be breached? Technically, the U.S. hit its debt limit at the end of July. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has been using “extraordinary measures” since then to delay a default. Yellen warned of “catastrophic” consequences if the debt limit isn’t raised before a default, which the Treasury estimates would happen on Oct. 18.
What are those consequences? Ms. Yellen told Congress that inaction could lead to a self-inflicted economic recession and a financial crisis. She also said that Social Security payments could be delayed, soldiers would not know when their paychecks were coming and interest rates on credit cards, car loans and mortgages would rise.
How much debt does the U.S. currently have? The national debt now stands at $28.43 trillion, according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s live tracker. The borrowing cap is set at $28.4 trillion, leaving the government with negligible wiggle room.
Why does the U.S. limit its borrowing? According to the Constitution, Congress must authorize borrowing. The debt limit was instituted in the early 20th century so the Treasury did not need to ask for permission each time it needed to issue bonds to pay bills.
Do other countries do it this way? Denmark also has a debt limit, but it is set so high that raising it is generally not an issue. Most other countries do not. In Poland, public debt cannot exceed 60 percent of gross domestic product.
Why is raising the debt limit so difficult? For many years, raising the debt ceiling was routine. But as the political environment has become more polarized, Congress has been playing an increasingly dangerous political game over the debt ceiling.
Would it be a good idea to do away with the debt limit? It often seems that the risk of an accidental default outweighs any fiscal responsibility that the debt limit encourages. However, it would take an act of Congress to do away with the debt limit, and finding agreement there is never easy.
But Democrats say the reconciliation process would consume too much time and is not assured of succeeding when the threat of a default is looming and the nation’s credit could be downgraded at any time. They say that if Republicans do not want to vote to increase federal borrowing power, they should simply allow Democrats to do it on their own.
“Look, the best way to get this done is just for Republicans to get out of the way,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said Tuesday. “None of them have to vote for a debt ceiling; let the 50 Democrats do it.”
Activists have been clamoring all year for Democrats to jettison the filibuster so they can advance the party’s agenda while they retain control of Congress and the White House. They have seized on the debt limit impasse as fresh ammunition.
“Senate Democrats are hurtling toward an easy choice,” said Eli Zupnick, spokesman for the anti-filibuster group Fix Our Senate. “Allow Senator McConnell to crash the economy or finally tackle the outdated and abused Senate filibuster that gives him the power to do so.”
Lawmakers have warned that any change to the filibuster could have far-reaching effects and provoke retaliation by the opposing party.
In 2013, Democrats frustrated by a Republican blockade of President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees changed the rules to allow the nominees to advance on a simple majority vote. Democrats exempted Supreme Court nominees from the change, but Republicans in 2017 moved quickly to apply the new rules to the high court, allowing President Donald J. Trump to seat three new Supreme Court justices during his term.
Lawmakers also say that ending the filibuster would allow one party to erase legislation enacted by the other when it assumes power.
“This is dangerous for both sides,” Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, said.