Democratic senators are getting antsy over the lack of progress on legislation to avoid a national default and want House Democrats to begin working on a plan to force Republicans to vote on a bill to raise the debt limit.
Democratic senators want to avoid a summer standoff on extending the nation’s borrowing authority, which would rattle financial markets and the broader economy that may be heading toward a mild recession in the second half of the year.
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) has shelved the idea of circulating a discharge petition to force a vote on a clean debt limit increase, opting instead to put pressure on Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to schedule such a vote himself.
But McCarthy is showing no signs of backing down from his demand that President Biden agree to big spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, even as Biden refuses to negotiate and House Republicans have been unable to unite on specific demands.
That’s led some Senate Democrats to say their House counterparts should start working on a procedural maneuver known as a discharge petition as an emergency backup plan in case McCarthy continues to dig in his heels.
“I think that they should definitely file a discharge petition in the House. I think they should file a couple of bills that provide a menu of options. They should file a number of options and then be prepared to move forward on discharge petition,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who served in the House leadership before winning election to the Senate.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he’s “deeply concerned” about the danger of a national default later this year.
“Every passing day leaves me more deeply concerned because they don’t seem to be constructively interested in a path forward,” he added of House Republicans.
Blumenthal expressed pessimism about negotiating a deal with McCarthy, who has yet to offer a detailed plan for reducing spending. Democrats say such a plan would need to be the starting point of any talks.
“At some point they will have to move forward with a discharge petition,” he predicted of House Democrats. “As we come closer to cataclysmic financial meltdown, I think the pressure will build on Republicans to be realistic.”
Blumenthal said “there should be consideration” of moving a discharge petition soon, adding: “It ought to be begin as soon as necessary.”
Members of the House minority can use the House discharge rule to bring a bill to the floor without the support of the majority’s leadership by collecting signatures from a majority of the chamber’s members.
Democrats control 213 House seats, which means they would need at least five Republicans to get the 218 signatures they need.
Democrats in both chambers think they could get a handful of moderate Republicans to sign a petition to circumvent McCarthy to avoid a default if there doesn’t appear to be another viable option, though none have publicly said they would do so.
Jeffries waved aside the possibility of moving a discharge petition when asked about it at a press conference last month.
“The most viable option right now is for the extreme MAGA Republicans in the House to get their act together and do what they consistently did when Donald Trump was the president of the United States of America,” he told reporters, noting the House raised the debt ceiling three times under Trump “without fanfare.”
Using a discharge petition to force a vote on a bill is time-consuming and would take weeks to complete — perhaps as long as two and a half months.
Any debt limit measure to be moved with a discharge petition would have to be referred to a House committee at least 30 days before attempting to move it to the floor.
Further complicating the picture, lawmakers may also have to file a motion to discharge a rule from the GOP-controlled Rules Committee establishing the process for how the debt-limit measure is handled on the floor.
And the House’s Rule XV states that motions to discharge bills and resolutions from committees shall be in order only on the second and fourth Mondays of a month.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she favors House Democrats circulating a discharge petition to move a clean debt-limit increase “if that’s what it takes” to get it passed.
“We need a clean debt limit,” she said.
Warren noted it could take weeks to collect 218 signatures and navigate the complicated procedures in the House, adding “so get started now.”
She warned that it’s hard to know in advance when exactly the Treasury Department is going to run out of flexibility to continue paying the nation’s debts.
“The ‘x date’ can be tricky to set with precision. What’s nuts is that the Republicans are trying to run us right up next to it. There’s no reason for that other political theater,” she said.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen informed McCarthy and other congressional leaders on Jan. 19 that the Treasury Department had begun using “extraordinary measures” to keep the government from defaulting.
“The period of time that extraordinary measures may last is subject to considerable uncertainty, including the challenges of forecasting the payments and receipts of the U.S. government months into the future,” she wrote.
Some Democratic senators worry the date when the nation faces default may arrive without enough advance warning to give House Democrats the time they need to discharge a clean debt limit bill to the floor for a vote before disaster strikes.
There’s growing pessimism in both chambers that McCarthy and Biden will agree to any deal to raise the debt ceiling and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who will be back in the Capitol Monday after a five-week absence because of a concussion, has not given any signs that he will step in to broker a compromise, as he did during the 2011 debt-limit standoff.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), a close friend of McCarthy, told Punchbowl News that he had “never been more pessimistic about where we stand with the debt ceiling.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said that he doesn’t see Republicans willing to back down anytime soon, based on his conversations with House members.
“I talked to some of the House members from Oregon. They gave me description of what it feels like on the House side … It sounds like the mode of operation is to drive the nation off the cliff,” he said.