Debt Limit Deal Fuels Debate Over Future Filibuster Exemptions

  • Senate vote proves GOP can bend rules, Democrats say
  • Debt limit alternatives deserve attention, Akabas says

Senators advanced a bill Thursday to preemptively block Republicans from filibustering a debt limit bill, with GOP leadership’s support, prompting lawmakers to consider future possible exceptions to the chamber’s 60-vote threshold.

Senators voted 64-36, with 14 Republicans joining all 50 Democrats, to end debate on a bill (S. 610) to allow a simple-majority vote on forthcoming legislation to increase the debt limit. The chamber will still need to pass the procedural bill with at least 51 votes and President Joe Biden would have to sign it into law for it to take effect, but Thursday’s bipartisan vote effectively clears a path for Democrats to pass a partisan debt limit bill.

The procedural bill only creates a one-time exception to the Senate’s 60-vote requirement to end debate. But conservatives have complained that the move was a mistake by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Democrats say it opens the door to future exceptions to the 60-vote threshold.

Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg
McConnell arrives to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Dec. 8.

“It shows that if you find the rules to be constraining to doing the right thing, you can make an exception to the rules,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in a hallway interview Tuesday. “Republicans were willing to do that. And I think that’s because at the end of the day, none of us take an oath to the Senate rules. We do take an oath about the Constitution. Covering indebtedness is specifically mentioned in the fifth article of the 14th Amendment.”

If Republicans are willing to waive the 60-vote threshold for a debt limit measure, there’s no reason they can’t do the same for other pieces of legislation, House Budget Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said in a Wednesday hallway interview.

“They’ve certainly opened themselves up to a legitimate argument about why there might not be other things that are as important as the debt limit,” Yarmuth said.

Progressives have complained that lawmakers currently can avoid a filibuster on budget-related bills through the reconciliation process, but not on other key bills on election law, immigration, or gun control.

GOP Denies Precedent

Republican supporters of the deal say it doesn’t necessarily set a precedent. The measure expediting a Senate vote would expire on Jan. 16. Lawmakers could strike a similar deal in the future, but it would again require 60 senators to first support a procedural bill.

“You could follow the same pattern again, but it would take 60 senators to agree to anything the House would suggest like this in the future,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Tuesday.

“It’s the right thing to do because the last thing this country needs is a default, and so we’ve set up a process to avoid default,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said of her support for McConnell’s plan. “It’s not ideal.”

Republican opponents say McConnell should have held his initial position, and forced Democrats to raise the debt limit—without Republican cooperation—via the multi-step budget reconciliation process. That would have required Democrats to amend the budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 14) adopted earlier this year to provide reconciliation instructions for a measure raising the debt limit.

Instead, 14 Republicans cast a vote Thursday to create a separate exemption for a debt limit bill.

“We ought to stay where we were,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters Tuesday. “We said we were going to leave it up to the Democrats.”

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said Senate Republicans should have used the filibuster as leverage for fiscally conservative policy concessions from Democrats, which Republicans never sought. Or, Roy said, they should have simply voted for cloture without poking a hole in the Senate’s filibuster rule.

“If you’re going to vote for the debt ceiling increase, don’t hide behind Senate procedure and then risk the filibuster because you’re trying to be too cute by half,” Roy said in a Thursday hallway interview.

Debt Limit Demise

In addition to broader questions about the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, the agreement to expedite a debt limit vote in particular may open the door to future rules changes to avoid a default on federal payments, Shai Akabas, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said in a Wednesday phone interview.

“The debt limit, from both parties’ perspective, has outlived its usefulness,” Akabas said. “There’s a desire, or receptiveness, to talking about alternative approaches.”

While many Republicans still support the existence of the debt limit, lawmakers have discussed alternatives.

Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) introduced a bill (H.R. 6139) Dec. 3 to automatically suspend the debt limit for the fiscal year of a budget resolution. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) introduced a bill to give the Treasury Department secretary the authority to raise the debt limit without an act of Congress, though Senate Republicans have said they’d block the measure.

Alternatively, Yarmuth has previously suggested that if Democrats must use the reconciliation process to raise the debt limit without Republican support, they should raise it to “a gazillion dollars” and never have to deal with it again.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jack Fitzpatrick in Washington at jfitzpatrick@bgov.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com

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