Politics

Senate braces for conservative debt deal drama of its own

Kevin McCarthy and Joe Biden achieved what once looked improbable: A bipartisan deal to raise the debt ceiling. Now any one senator has the leverage to bring the country right to the brink of default.

After the House’s planned Wednesday vote to raise the debt ceiling through 2024, the Senate will have only days before the June 5 deadline. And Senate leaders may have to do procedural acrobatics to clear the bill through their chamber in time to keep financial markets and everyday Americans comfortable.

“If somebody used every procedural motion, we wouldn’t even be done by June 5,” said Sen. Debbie Stabebow (D-Mich.), the No. 3 Democratic leader, who supports the deal. “Anyone who runs this out just to be an obstructionist, I think would be extremely irresponsible.”

Stabenow, like many senators, foresees some Senate magic as the weekend gets closer and senators want to go home. But it could be a bumpy ride: Due to the quirks of the upper chamber, individual senators can drag out a bill for roughly a week, as all 100 members must agree in order to fast-track legislation.

It’s a very Senate debate, albeit one with serious ramifications if the country gets too close to the cliff. In 2011, Standard and Poor’s downgraded the United States’ credit rating several days after Congress voted to raise the debt ceiling. Fitch has already put the U.S. on a negative ratings watch for this year’s saga.

But if conservatives get what they want, namely roll call votes on altering the bill, they may acquiesce and give the country plenty of breathing room before June 5.

“There are a lot of things that they could still do to convince me to collapse time,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who had threatened to “use every procedural tool” to impede a bill that didn’t have significant spending cuts. “If they don’t do those things, then I might do that.”

There are tactics Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer can use to minimize debate time and keep things moving but, in all likelihood, he’ll have to strike a deal of his own on the debt limit.

It won’t be a new version of a debt agreement; there’s not enough time for senators to change the bill and send it back to the House. Instead, Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will have to make a deal on amendment votes. Presumably, all of them would fail, but such an agreement would make individual senators feel heard on a two-year budget deal that takes the debt ceiling drama out of Washington until 2025 — and in turn, gives them political cover to allow the legislation to come to a quick vote.

“I haven’t heard much of a desire to delay the inevitable,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who once forced Senate clerks to read the entire American Rescue Plan.

A variety of senators are already making their demands known. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) says he “will use all powers available” to get a vote on redoing the legislation’s small boost to defense spending, arguing it is insufficient. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) wants to strip approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline from the bill; Kaine has fought the pipeline for months.

And Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), no stranger to using impending deadlines as leverage, wants to vote on an alternative debt ceiling proposal that would raise the debt limit for a shorter time span while imposing hundreds of billions in budget cuts. He readily admitted his amendment won’t pass but said people need to see it get a vote.

“I don’t think there are 50 votes. I think about half of the Republican caucus will support mine. No Democrats will support it. But the American people need to know that’s where we are,” Paul said.

Some senators are already signaling they want to make the chamber look somewhat dignified in comparison to a House GOP majority that’s riven over the deal. McConnell and Schumer both endorsed the agreement Tuesday, a significant development as both urged Congress to send the bill to the president’s desk. McConnell called it a “historic agreement” while Schumer said he would move to pass it “as soon as we can.”

Both Senate Democrats and Republicans will meet for party meetings Wednesday and begin to assess what it will take to move the bill through the Senate quickly. On the Republican side, there’s already a split between McConnell allies and conservatives like Paul, Lee and Johnson.

“It’s just a question of figuring out what the appetite is for amendments. And how our guys want to proceed. If they want to, there are a number of procedural ways they could slow it down,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).

This time, progressive grumbling could also become an issue. Some on the left are worried about additional work requirements for government benefits, losing billions for IRS enforcement and the potential environmental impact of the new pipeline. It’s still unclear if they’ll demand amendment votes.

“We don’t build a stronger future as a nation by helping out tax cheats and taking away food from hungry people. This is just wrong,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who did not say whether she would oppose the bill. “I have concerns and I continue to read.”

At the moment, there’s a feeling in both parties that finishing up before the weekend is achievable, despite all the complaints about what’s in the deal. Democratic and Republican Party leaders are lining up behind the deal and conservatives are signaling they’ll allow it to move quickly — as long as they get their amendment votes.

Of course, it only takes one dissatisfied senator to change all that.

“It’ll still pass before the deadline. It may be three in the morning on June 6,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.). “But for all practical purposes, we’re going to do the deadline.”

Any one senator can slow down the legislation’s passage through the upper chamber. And conservative grumbling has already started.  

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