The Senate avoided a debt default on Tuesday — in a unique way.
Lawmakers voted 50-49 to raise the debt limit by $2.5 trillion, a figure that’s expected to tide the government over until after the midterm elections next fall. Every one to two years, it’s vital for the US to address the debt ceiling to cover past spending and make sure the government doesn’t default; if it did, it would likely have catastrophic economic consequences globally.
Interestingly, the resolution succeeded because it did not require 60 votes to clear a filibuster in the Senate after lawmakers passed a bill last Thursday granting a one-time exception to the rule.
The deal to suspend the filibuster was bipartisan; leaders of both parties have hesitated to make exceptions to the filibuster, a procedural rule requiring a Senate supermajority to pass legislation, if it gets blocked by the opposition. Senators were willing to make an exception in this case, for two reasons.
One, it enabled Democrats to approve the debt limit resolution on their own, with no Republican support. Republicans wanted to withhold their votes in hopes of weaponizing Democrats’ vote to raise the debt ceiling in future campaigns. Two, the deal allowed a vote to be held quickly, narrowly avoiding the December 15 default deadline calculated by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
This last-minute deal enabled lawmakers to avert a debt default and massive economic crisis while overcoming a partisan impasse on the subject. For some Democrats, too, it revealed that exceptions to the filibuster are possible — and an option lawmakers should consider for other bills.
Republicans want Democrats to own the debt
Raising or suspending the debt limit, something lawmakers have to do to ensure the country has enough money to cover its past spending, has long been politicized.
In the past, both parties have used votes to raise or suspend the debt limit as opportunities to accuse the other party of irresponsible spending, with Republicans doing so more frequently in recent years. In reality, additions to the debt have taken place under both Democratic and Republican presidents. And during the Trump administration, as was generally the case previously, debt limit increases received bipartisan backing: In that period, $8 trillion was added to the national debt, and lawmakers voted to suspend the debt limit three times.
This year, however, Republicans have been particularly eager to use the debt limit to send a political message, as midterm elections loom in 2022.
The fight over the debt limit took place as Democrats are attempting to pass a $1.85 trillion social and climate spending bill — the Build Back Better Act — on their own via budget reconciliation (a process that, like the filibuster exemption, allows bills to pass the Senate with a simple majority). Republican leaders have argued Democrats should figure out how to raise the debt ceiling on their own, too. Republicans hope to use a Democratic party-line debt limit vote in campaigns to accuse the other party of adding to the debt. They plan to incorrectly imply that Democrats’ spending bills necessitated the debt limit increase, even though the spending covered by the increase has already happened, with much of it taking place under President Donald Trump.
The parties have already had one major debt limit fight earlier this year. The debt default date was originally in October, and Republicans initially refused to help raise the debt limit. They ultimately caved as the default deadline approached. At that time, lawmakers raised the limit by $480 billion, enough to push the default date back a few months, bringing the national debt to roughly $29 trillion.
This particular vote ends this fight, at least temporarily. It raises the debt limit by enough to cover expenses until roughly next fall, at which point this battle will be repeated. Since raising or suspending the debt ceiling is must-pass legislation, it should be a routine issue that Congress checks off, not a controversial one. Because it has to pass, however, it’s increasingly used as an opportunity for the minority party to extract policy concessions or make a political point (for example, that their opposition spends too freely). So there will likely be a similar battle next fall, regardless of which party wins the midterms.
A precedent for a filibuster exception
The debt ceiling vote has opened the door to questions of whether Democrats would consider filibuster exceptions for other bills, like voting rights protections. Activists, and some Democratic lawmakers, have called for this in recent months amid failures to advance voting rights protections, police reform, and a $15 minimum wage due to GOP opposition in the Senate. But a filibuster exemption for policy changes is likely to be difficult to secure.
This time around, Democrats were only able to get an exception because it was for something Republicans actually wanted. Though there was enough GOP opposition to raising the debt limit that getting 60 Senate votes was in doubt, Republican leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did not want the US to default. Those leaders made sure the exception passed for the good of the domestic and global economy. Without Republican support, Democrats likely wouldn’t be able to approve another exception in this same way.
That leaves Democrats with another challenging option: banding together for a rules change. Those sorts of modifications can be done by majority vote. But that would require the support of all 50 Democratic caucus members, which party leaders don’t currently have. Moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) have staunchly opposed such changes thus far.
Still, this development has made it clear lawmakers do have another option to consider for bills that can’t pass via budget reconciliation, and has set a recent precedent for such carveouts. Now that it’s been done once, expect to hear calls to do it again. In fact, this filibuster carveout has sparked new conversation about how else this tactic could be used.
“If we can make an exception to the filibuster for the debt ceiling, we should absolutely do it to protect our democracy,” Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) has previously said.