The Center Holds as Debt Ceiling Bill Advances to the Senate

June 1, 2023 by Dan McCue
The Center Holds as Debt Ceiling Bill Advances to the Senate
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., walks to the House chamber at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, May 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON — With apologies to the late Joan Didion, the center did hold Wednesday night and the result was a rousing bipartisan endorsement of the debt ceiling deal that will prevent the first-ever default by the government in U.S. history — presuming the Senate can pass a clean version of the bill by Friday night.

Last night’s 314-117 vote in the House came as extremists from both parties decried the deal hashed out by negotiators working for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and President Joe Biden as a “sell out.”

In the end, 71 Republicans and 46 Democrats balked and voted against the bill. Four members failed to cast any vote at all, though two — Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., and Rep. Deborah Ross, D-N.C. — were both absent for medical reasons.

Craig broke her ankle while gardening at her home in Prior Lake, Minnesota, on Monday and was advised by doctors not to fly back for the vote. Ross recently tested positive for COVID-19.

Both would have been yes votes anyway, their respective offices said.

In the end, when McCarthy could wring not a single vote more from his caucus, garnering only 149 of the 218 votes he needed to pass the Fiscal Responsibility Act, it was the centrists among House Democrats who rallied, providing 165 votes and assuring the bill’s passage by a wide margin.

“There never has been and never will be anything ‘fiscally responsible’ about refusing to pay America’s bills,” said New Democrat Coalition Chair Annie Kuster, D-N.H., after the votes were tallied. 

The coalition has 98 members, 91 of whom voted in favor of the bill.

“Tonight, New Dems led a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in rejecting the antics of some extreme Republicans and followed through on our duty to protect the full faith and credit of the United States,” Kuster continued. 

“Defaulting on our debt would have plunged the U.S. into an unprecedented economic crisis that would have wiped out more than 7 million jobs, $10 trillion in household wealth, and irreparably damaged the economic and political power of the U.S. dollar on the world stage,” Kuster added. 

The measure passed by the House Wednesday night would suspend the debt limit until Jan. 1, 2025, pushing its expiration past the November 2024 elections.

The compromise package, which comes to 99 pages in all, also restricts federal spending for the next two years and revises some policies.

For instance, it imposes new work requirements for able-bodied Americans receiving government food aid, and allows for the construction of a new natural gas pipeline in Appalachia, called the Mountain Valley Pipeline, provisions that made the bill a non-starter for many progressives in the House.

Other Democrats bemoaned the fact the compromise fails to roll back Trump-era tax breaks that many blame for dramatically enlarging the federal deficit.

All the same, even without the additional tax revenue, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the temporary caps on spending should reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next decade, a key goal of House Republicans, but not enough of a win to appease the hard right of the party.

Throughout the day on Wednesday, members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus blasted the compromise agreement, suggesting that it fell so far short of their expectations in terms of curbing government spending, that they might even force a vote on McCarthy’s continued speakership.

Instead, they sought to block adoption of a rule setting the terms of floor debate on the legislation.

Rules are typically supported by the majority party because they establish the procedures for passing legislation the majority wants. 

In this case, however, the Freedom Caucus had enough sway to place the vote on the rules in doubt.

It was at this moment that the proceedings most reminded one of the opening lines of Didion’s essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

In that message, Didion offers a first-person meditation on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco, California, in the late spring of 1967.

Reaching for an apt metaphor, she borrows a line from the W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming.”

“Things fall apart,” Yeats wrote. “The center cannot hold. … Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

With a catastrophic default looming in the wings of the House chamber, it was House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who jumped into the breach, signaling to McCarthy and the other Republican leaders that he had the votes they needed — in the end, 52 votes in all — to push the rule through.

“Once again, it’s House Democrats to the rescue to avoid a dangerous default,” Jeffries said later.

As all of this transpired, Biden was watching the vote on CSPAN from Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he will deliver the commencement address at the U.S. Air Force Academy later today.

After phoning McCarthy and other congressional leaders, thanking them for their successful coalition-building, the president released a statement that said the House had taken “a critical step forward to prevent a first-ever default and protect our country’s hard-earned and historic economic recovery.”

“This budget agreement is a bipartisan compromise. Neither side got everything it wanted. That’s the responsibility of governing. I want to thank Speaker McCarthy and his team for negotiating in good faith, as well as Leader Jeffries for his leadership,” Biden said.

In explaining his vote in favor of the agreement, centrist Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., said he feels the pain of his constituents who are frustrated “when D.C. folks play politics and create unnecessary crises.”

Though he admitted to having “concerns” about parts of the bill, he said he also thinks it’s important for America to pay its bills.

“Failing to address the debt ceiling is like choosing not to make the minimum payment on a credit card — you can make that choice, but it will have disastrous consequences.

“A default would raise borrowing costs for every American family and small business. Independent economic analysis suggests that a default would kill millions of American jobs and deliver a huge blow to folks in our neck of the woods. That’s not something I’m willing to accept.

“This is not a perfect deal. But overall, this legislation will help our country avoid economic catastrophe — and will protect critical services, like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans’ benefits, health care, education and more,” he added.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., held a similar view.

“Over the past few months, I’ve heard directly from Virginians who are deeply concerned about the impacts of a potential default,” she said. “Like me, they believe that we should pay our nation’s bills and stop our economy from tanking.

“In response, I have been very clear — my chief responsibility in this moment is protecting America’s full faith and credit, avoiding a recession, and defending our commonwealth’s economy,” she continued “While I do not agree with every provision in this package, I can’t argue with the package’s end result: preventing an economic catastrophe for the Virginians I serve. Such is the nature of compromise in an era of divided government.

“As I’ve long said, we can pay our bills while also having separate conversations about the investments we make in America’s people, communities, economy and national security,” Spanberger said.

With the House vote done, Thursday begins what both Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., hope will essentially be a sprint to the finish line.

On Thursday, Schumer said once the bill reached the Senate, he would move “to bring it to the floor as soon as possible.”

“I cannot stress enough that we have no margin for error,” he continued. “Either we proceed quickly and send this bipartisan agreement to the president’s desk, or the federal government will default for the first time ever.”

Schumer went on to say that “any needless delay, any last-minute brinkmanship at this point would be an unacceptable risk,” a reference to the handful of senators who have already indicated they want to add amendments to the bill, something that would trigger another round of voting in the House. 

“Moving quickly, working together to avoid default is the responsible and necessary thing to do,” he said.

As for McConnell, he said Wednesday that he sees the $1.5 trillion reduction in federal government spending that the deal mandates as “$1.5 trillion that won’t be put on the American taxpayers’ tab.”

“It’s a down payment on more progress … yet to come,” he said.

McConnell went on to describe the deal hashed out between McCarthy and the White House as “a much-needed step in the right direction.”

“I’ll be proud to support it without delay,” he said.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned lawmakers the government may be unable to pay its bills beginning on Monday unless the debt ceiling is lifted by then.

“This agreement is good news for the American people and the American economy,” Biden said on Wednesday. “It protects key priorities and accomplishments from the past two years, including historic investments that are creating good jobs across the country. And, it honors my commitment to safeguard Americans’ health care and protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It protects critical programs that millions of hardworking families, students and veterans count on.

“I have been clear that the only path forward is a bipartisan compromise that can earn the support of both parties,” he added. “This agreement meets that test. I urge the Senate to pass it as quickly as possible so that I can sign it into law, and our country can continue building the strongest economy in the world.”

Meanwhile, back in the House, New Dem Chair Kuster was exultant.

“I’ve always said the members in the middle would get this done, and that’s exactly what you saw last night,” she said. “Throughout negotiations, New Dems were in touch with the White House, including on our priorities of permitting reform and protecting veterans’ benefits, and we came out early with a supportive statement. On the final vote, we stuck together to save our economy. Compromise requires give and take, and as New Dems, we know we’ll never get anything done in Congress if we let perfect be the enemy of the good.

“Moving forward, New Dems remain committed to working with reasonable Republicans to advance fiscally responsible solutions to ensure the long-term health of our economy,” she added.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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