Biden warns of ‘danger for miscalculation’ on debt limit

Biden, Schumer push for action this week; McConnell not budging

President Joe Biden on Monday called Republican opponents 'reckless and dangerous' for refusing to join Democrats in raising the US debt limit. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden on Monday called Republican opponents 'reckless and dangerous' for refusing to join Democrats in raising the US debt limit. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted October 4, 2021 at 1:26pm

President Joe Biden on Monday renewed calls for Senate Republicans to allow Democrats to raise the debt limit on their own without going through what he called “an incredibly complicated, cumbersome process” of budget reconciliation.

Democratic leaders are in the process of using the fiscal 2022 budget resolution to pass a package of spending expansions and tax breaks likely in the $2 trillion range, paid for with tax increases on wealthier households and corporations.

They technically have the ability, after an earlier opinion from the Senate parliamentarian, to revise the budget resolution and add instructions for a filibuster-proof debt limit increase. But Democrats have consistently rejected that option, something Biden, himself a Senate veteran, emphatically reiterated Monday in an address from the White House.

"It’s fraught with all kinds of potential danger for miscalculation,” Biden said of the budget process, which would set in motion two “vote-a-ramas” on the Senate floor.

Going through the procedural machinations could take a week to 10 days, experts have said. And an opinion from the parliamentarian last week that Democrats could revise the budget blueprint without “turning off” reconciliation protections for their broader fiscal package could bolster that route’s prospects.

[Potential fallback for debt ceiling fraught with complications]

Theoretically, that timeline could get the measure through the Senate just ahead of the Treasury Department’s Oct. 18 deadline, after which the agency “would be left with very limited resources that would be depleted quickly,” Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen wrote to lawmakers last week.

But the timing is uncertain and the budget procedure itself untested, and Biden questioned whether Republicans would take advantage of dilatory tactics and “gotcha” votes. Amendments during vote-a-rama sessions need to be germane, or relevant to the bill being considered. But it takes time to rule nongermane amendments out of order, and the minority can also offer nonbinding motions to send a reconciliation bill back to committee.

“We don’t have time to delay with elaborate procedural schemes, which Republicans’ proposals require — scores of votes without any certainty at all, many of which have nothing to do with the debt limit at all. That’s when accidents happen,” Biden said.

But later in the day, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki didn’t take reconciliation off the table, telling reporters the administration wasn’t “ruling out options” when it came to the debt limit. Similarly, a frustrated Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin wouldn’t rule it out.

“I’m not going to say anything is impossible,” the Illinois Democrat told reporters.

Weekend work?

The House has no floor votes scheduled for two weeks, though Democratic leaders said members will get 72 hours’ notice if any votes are called during that time, such as on debt limit legislation. The Senate is scheduled to be out next week, though Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer cautioned Monday that the session could drag into the weekend or even into next week’s recess to deal with the debt limit.

“Let me be clear about the task ahead of us: we must get a bill to the President’s desk dealing with the debt limit by the end of the week. Period,” the New York Democrat wrote in a letter to colleagues. “We do not have the luxury of waiting until October 18th, as it is our responsibility to re-assure the world that the United States meets our obligations in a timely fashion and that the full faith and credit of the United States should never be in question.”

Some independent forecasters say Treasury officials may have more wiggle room than they are letting on.

Analysts at Wrightson ICAP, an investment advisory firm that tracks the Treasury bond market, in a note Monday estimated that Treasury could make it until Oct. 25 before exhausting its cash and borrowing authority.

However, the Wrightson analysts said there’s significant uncertainty in the estimate and “the outlook gets progressively murkier with each passing day in the second half of October.” The Oct. 25 date, they said, could get moved “up or back by a few days” based on information that will become available later this week.

Biden said Congress should not wait until the last second, since the U.S. credit rating could be downgraded ahead of whenever the actual “catastrophic event” occurs, adding that “interest rates will rise for mortgages, auto loans, credit cards.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s stance has been clear for months: Republicans won’t help raise or suspend the debt ceiling. Democrats are on their own. But Republicans haven’t consented to allowing them to pass the measure with a simple majority, arguing instead that Democrats don’t even need GOP help for that procedural step. McConnell reiterated that stance in a letter to Biden on Monday.

Democrats have cited votes in 2003, 2004 and 2006 under unified GOP control, when, even though Democrats almost unanimously voted against raising the debt limit, they never filibustered it in the Senate, allowing Republicans to pass the bills with simple-majority votes.

“So let’s be clear, not only are Republicans refusing to do their job, they’re threatening to use … their power to prevent us from doing our job,” Biden said at the White House.

McConnell and other Republicans have taken aim at Biden’s own votes against the debt limit in those years. In 2004, the current president missed a debt limit vote but announced that he would have opposed it.

“I would have cast a symbolic vote against an extension of the debt limit. Today’s fiscal mess, the transformation of historic surpluses into record deficits, is not an accident,” Biden said in November 2004, as reported in the Congressional Record. “It is the inevitable outcome of policies that consistently ignored evidence and experience.”

Still, in his Monday letter, McConnell said circumstances have changed from the mid-2000s.

“Leader Schumer requested and won new powers to repeatedly reuse the fast-track, party-line reconciliation process,” the Kentucky Republican wrote, citing the potentially novel use of section 304 of the 1974 budget law to revise an existing budget. “As a result, Senate Democrats do not need Republican cooperation in any shape or form to do their job. Democrats do not need our consent to set a vote at 51 instead of 60.”

Next steps uncertain

If there’s no attempt to revisit the fiscal 2022 budget, as Democrats contend, there are few other feasible paths forward.

Schumer late last week set up a vote on legislation to suspend the debt limit through Dec. 16, 2022, which passed the House on a 219-212 vote. The Senate procedural vote to take up the House measure was adopted 50-43, demonstrating Democratic unity in that chamber. But under current rules, that bill would still need 60 votes to advance.

[Debt ceiling bill stalls again in Senate as pressure grows]

Republicans already blocked similar legislation from advancing twice last week. But Schumer nonetheless is preparing to try again, filing cloture on the House-passed bill before the Senate adjourned Monday night. That sets up a midweek procedural vote on the measure that would need the support of 60 senators to advance.

Schumer said his caucus would discuss next steps at Tuesday’s policy lunch. But at the moment, the House-passed bill appears to have no path forward in the Senate unless the Democratic Caucus somehow unites behind changing the legislative filibuster rules or Republicans back down.

“This episode is a stark reminder how absurd and partisan Republicans have made the process for raising the debt limit,” Schumer wrote Monday.

Chris Cioffi, Paul M. Krawzak and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.