WASHINGTON — The Senate dodged a U.S. debt disaster Thursday night, voting to extend the government’s borrowing authority into December and temporarily avert an unprecedented federal default that experts warned would devastate the economy and harm millions of Americans.
The vote of 50-48 in support of the bill to raise the government’s debt ceiling by nearly a half-trillion dollars brought instant relief in Washington and far beyond. However, it provides only a reprieve. Assuming the House goes along, which it is expected to do next week, Republican and Democratic lawmakers will still have to tackle their deep differences on the issue once more before year end.
That debate will take place as lawmakers also work to fund the federal government for the new fiscal year and as they keep up their bitter battling over President Joe Biden’s top domestic priorities — a bipartisan infrastructure plan with nearly $550 billion in new spending as well as a much more expansive, $3.5 trillion effort focused on health, safety net programs and the environment.
Easing the crisis at hand — a disastrous default looming in just weeks —- the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, offered his support for a short-term extension of the government’s borrowing authority after leading solid GOP opposition to a longer extension. He acted as Biden and business leaders ramped up their concerns that a default would disrupt government payments to millions of Americans and throw the nation into recession.
The GOP concession was not popular with some members of McConnell’s Republican caucus, who complained that the nation’s debt levels are unsustainable. Only 11 Republican senators voted with McConnell to circumvent the Senate filibuster and let Democrats push back the deadline, including Susan Collins of Maine.
“I can’t vote to raise this debt ceiling, not right now, especially given the plans at play to increase spending immediately by another $3.5 trillion,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said shortly before the vote.
But Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was among those voting to advance the bill.
“I’m not willing to let this train go off the cliff,” she said.
Congress has just days to act before the Oct. 18 deadline after which the Treasury Department has warned it will quickly run short of funds to handle the nation’s already accrued debt load.
Republican leaders worked through the day to find the 10 votes they needed to advance the debt limit extension to a final vote, holding a private huddle late in the afternoon. McConnell allowed for an airing of all views and ultimately told senators he would vote yes.
The White House signaled Biden’s support, with principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saying the president would sign a bill to raise the debt limit when it passed Congress.
Jabbing the Republicans, she also said, “It gives us some breathing room from the catastrophic default we were approaching because of Sen. McConnell’s decision to play politics with our economy.”
The accord sets the stage for a sequel of sorts in December, when Congress will again face pressing deadlines to fund the government and raise the debt limit before heading home for the holidays.
The $480 billion increase in the debt ceiling is the level that the Treasury Department has said is needed to get safely to Dec. 3.
“I thank my Democratic colleagues for showing unity in solving this Republican-manufactured crisis,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. “Despite immense opposition from Leader McConnell and members of his conference, our caucus held together and we have pulled our country back from the cliff’s edge that Republicans tried to push us over.”
McConnell saw it quite differently.
“The pathway our Democratic colleagues have accepted will spare the American people any near-term crisis, while definitively resolving the majority’s excuse that they lacked time to address the debt limit through [reconciliation],” McConnell said Thursday. “Now there will be no question: They’ll have plenty of time.”
McConnell and fellow Senate Republicans still insist that the Democrats go it alone to raise the debt ceiling longer term. Further, McConnell has insisted that Democrats use the same cumbersome legislative process called reconciliation that they used to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill and have been employing to try to pass Biden’s $3.5 trillion measure to boost safety net, health and environmental programs.
On Wednesday, Biden had enlisted top business leaders to push for immediately suspending the debt limit, saying the approaching deadline created the risk of a historic default that would be like a “meteor” that could crush the U.S. economy and send waves of damage worldwide.
“It’s not right and it’s dangerous,” Biden said of the resistance by Senate Republicans.
Story by Kevin Freking, Alan Fram and Alexandra Jaffe. Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro, Josh Boak and Damian J. Troise contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this report had an incorrect headline regarding Sen. Susan Collins’ vote and misstated the number of Republicans who voted to circumvent the filibuster.