The House passed legislation Tuesday that would limit Senate debate on a separate debt ceiling increase bill to 10 hours, creating a temporary loophole in that chamber’s 60-vote legislative filibuster rules.
The bill, which would also delay scheduled cuts in Medicare and other programs, passed on a 222-212 vote. The measure is expected to get a Senate vote this week, completing the first of two steps lawmakers have decided will be needed to pass a debt limit bill this time around.
The legislative vehicle is an unrelated bill that previously passed both chambers with amendments, allowing Senate leaders to avoid a time-consuming motion to proceed in that chamber. Instead, only one cloture vote would be needed.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who briefed his caucus at lunch on Tuesday, blessed the arrangement in comments to reporters. He said the new debt limit measure could pass as early as Thursday.
"I’m confident that this particular procedure coupled with the avoidance of Medicare cuts will achieve enough Republican support to clear the 60 vote threshold," McConnell said.
The debt limit provision would allow Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer to introduce a joint resolution, which has the force of law just like a bill, no later than Dec. 31, 2021, to increase the $28.9 trillion debt ceiling by an amount yet to be determined. It would then be automatically placed on the Senate calendar, and it would be in order to proceed to its consideration at any time through Jan. 15.
Debate on the measure would be limited to 10 hours, with no amendments. Motions to commit or to move on to other business wouldn't be allowed. Then there would be a simple majority threshold for passage, or 51 votes if all senators are present.
The special procedure would be available for one time only, wouldn't be applicable to any other piece of legislation and would expire on Jan. 16.
It wasn't yet clear when the debt limit measure would be introduced or taken up, or in what dollar amount it would be raised by. Some independent forecasts estimate it would take something like $2 trillion in additional borrowing authority to make it past the November 2022 midterm elections.
Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has urged lawmakers to act before Dec. 15 on the limit, after which she's said it's possible Treasury won't be able to meet all U.S. financial obligations on time. But she's also said there's a "high degree of confidence" that Treasury can make all of its required payments immediately after that date, and independent forecasters have said there may be a few more weeks of wiggle room if needed.
Congressional leaders have said they'd prefer to deal with the issue before Dec. 15, however.
"We always said we wanted a process that was simple, not risky, not convoluted, didn't put us through lots of different votes," Schumer told reporters after a Democratic Caucus lunch Tuesday. "We Democrats were always willing to carry the burden. That's what's gonna happen."
Medicare, farm cuts
The debt limit process language is tucked into a bill that would avoid several Medicare cuts that would otherwise be triggered Jan. 1, including across-the-board reductions to provider reimbursements as well as separate cuts to physician and laboratory services payments.
The broader Medicare cuts would be delayed until March 31, 2022, after which 1 percent reductions would kick in — half of what would otherwise take place — through June 30 unless Congress delays the cuts again.
The measure would delay a separate set of Medicare cuts as well as reductions affecting a broad range of federal programs, including agriculture subsidies, military retirement funds and several new programs established under Democrats' $2.2 trillion budget reconciliation bill, if that's enacted this year.
Under the 2010 statutory pay-as-you-go law, those cuts would be triggered 15 days after the end of this session; instead, the provision would delay the reductions by a year, to 2023, unless waived again in subsequent legislation.
Dollar amount required
The debt limit provision would enable Republicans to avoid voting directly for a debt limit increase, while forcing Democrats to vote on a specific dollar figure — rather than simply suspending the limit to a date out in the future. That was something Republicans insisted on for the short-term patch in October that lifted the ceiling by $480 billion.
"It's important to restore the process of raising the debt ceiling with a number, so the voters can take a look and see what the reality is," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Tuesday.
But at least 10 Senate Republicans would still need to vote for cloture to get around the 60-vote threshold for the underlying bill. After the October bill passed, McConnell said Republicans wouldn't help Democrats pass legislation to suspend or raise the nation’s debt ceiling again.
After Tuesday's lunch, McConnell said the latest agreement doesn't violate any principle he laid out earlier.
"The red line is intact," he said. "The red line is that you have a simple-majority, party-line vote on the debt ceiling. That's exactly where we will end up."
GOP senators so far have been lukewarm on the procedural change that McConnell briefed members about.
“How is that different than just voting to get on the measure?” Mitt Romney, R-Utah, asked Tuesday. “I mean, that was what was the option last time. It took 10 Republicans to do that. To create a rule would require 10 Republicans to do that. It seems to me that's the same thing over again.”
Mike Rounds, R-S.D., was among the Republicans who voted for cloture in October, along with McConnell and Cornyn. He said he wouldn't vote to advance the debt limit process bill this time, however.
"Last time I voted to call the question to put them in a position to where they could vote up or down on the debt limit increase," Rounds said Tuesday. "This time around, they needed to do it on their own."
Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., was another GOP senator who voted for cloture on the short-term patch. Like Rounds, Shelby said Tuesday he wouldn't support advancing the new package to a final vote.
Wicker said he might vote to advance the measure if it helps "get past" the debt ceiling issue, while Cramer said suspending the Medicare cuts was important.
"It may be the least bad deal," Cramer said. "I wouldn't call it a great deal."
Cornyn suggested he'd likely back cloture again this time. "I'm certainly not gonna vote to cut Medicare reimbursement," he said.
Changing the rules
On Monday when news of the debt limit process fix began circulating, Mike Lee, R-Utah, tweeted that it would be akin to "NUKING THE FILIBUSTER!"
Democrats in October weighed temporarily changing the Senate rules to allow a simple majority for passage of a debt limit bill. But Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., among others, expressed opposition, and it was clear Republicans wouldn't support changing the filibuster rule.
This time is different in that it would require 60 votes effectively to temporarily change the rules to allow the expedited debt ceiling process.
The legislation acknowledges it would mean changing the chamber's rules, but also stipulates it's applicable only in this one instance and that there's "full recognition of the constitutional right of the Senate to change the rules … at any time, in the same manner, and to the same extent as in the case of any other rule of the Senate."
Keeping the measure separate from the revised fiscal 2022 defense authorization measure, as opposed to merging the two as had been mulled earlier, may actually help gain GOP support for the maneuver.
"I think the defense bill, everybody kind of felt like is a big enough bill that needs to move on its own. National security is an issue that we've been batting around out here now for the past several weeks, and we want to get that bill done," Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters. "And there was another vehicle available, which seems to fit."
David Lerman, Laura Weiss and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.