Democrats Float Changes to Filibuster Amid Debt Ceiling Standoff

WASHINGTON—Top Senate Democrats and Republicans blamed each other for the failure of Congress to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, with some Democrats floating possible changes to the Senate’s filibuster rule to resolve the impasse, ahead of a possible default in as little as two weeks.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) has set up a Wednesday vote—the third one in the past two weeks—on clearing a procedural hurdle that stands in the way of raising the debt ceiling. But Republicans, protesting Democrats’ separate spending ambitions, indicated they would continue to stand united in withholding their support for a debt-ceiling increase, which needs 60 votes to move forward in the 50-50 Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) repeated that Democrats shouldn’t expect any GOP help, arguing they should use a procedure called budget reconciliation to pass the debt-limit increase with just a simple majority.

“The sooner they get about it, the better,” he said. “There’s a clear path to achieve raising the debt ceiling.”

But Mr. Schumer again dismissed the idea of using reconciliation, calling the complicated legislative procedure a “convoluted and risky process.” Asked if he could guarantee that the U.S. wouldn’t default, Mr. Schumer said, “Ask Mitch McConnell.” He said Democrats “are willing to cast 50 votes ourselves. It’s up to him. All he has to do is get out of the way.”

The Wednesday vote is on whether to end debate on legislation suspending the debt limit through Dec. 16, 2022. The House last week passed the legislation in a 219-212 vote.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said the U.S. will exhaust its cash-conservation measures by Oct. 18, leaving it without enough money to pay all of its bills.

“It’s really up to the Congress to decide how to manage it, but I believe it must be done.” Ms. Yellen said on CNBC on Tuesday morning. “It would be catastrophic to not pay the government’s bills,” she said, predicting a recession among other consequences.

Wall Street has been closely monitoring the debt-ceiling developments. On Tuesday, Moody’s Investors Service, which rates debt, said it expects Democrats to “likely reach an agreement within their own party to raise the debt limit through the budget reconciliation process” given the lack of support from the GOP. Democrats weren’t so sure.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) has declined to work with Democrats to get the U.S. debt ceiling increased.



Photo:

Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

“Is Moody’s listening to any of us? I don’t see any leaders in the Democratic Party suggesting that we do this through reconciliation,” said

Sen. Chris Murphy

(D., Conn.).

Mr. Murphy and other Democrats said they were discussing a possible one-day elimination of the 60-vote filibuster in order to raise the debt ceiling, or potentially a permanent carve-out that would make it against the Senate rules to filibuster debt ceiling increases.

“I think that’s a real possibility,” said President Biden in response to a reporter’s question late Tuesday about whether Democrats might pursue that option. Mr. Biden has previously said he didn’t want to eliminate the filibuster but could be open to changes.

Such a change would require the support of all 50 Democrats, and Sens. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.) have been adamant that they want to preserve the filibuster. Republicans view creating exceptions to the filibuster as the start of a process that would end with the rule’s elimination as lawmakers lobby for additional legislation—such as on immigration or voting—to also be exempt.

“I’ve been consistently very skeptical of the idea, but this is so beyond the pale in terms of irresponsibility,” said Sen. Angus King (I., Maine) of filibuster changes. “We have a responsibility to the people of this country that transcends the Senate rule.”

As the federal debt and budget deficits grow in Washington, it’s unclear whether Democrats and Republicans are concerned. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib examines where each party stands on the issue. Photo illustration: Todd Johnson

Asked Tuesday whether he would be open to making some temporary changes to the filibuster to deal with the debt ceiling, Mr. Manchin responded, “I just know that there’s enough people here that will not let this country fall to default. So I want all of your readers at The Wall Street Journal to know: It is not going to happen.”

President Biden said the avenues for addressing the debt ceiling were narrowing for each day that Republicans blocked a vote.

“There’s not many options if they’re going to be that irresponsible,” he said. “I don’t think they are going to end up being that irresponsible.”

The parties’ stances extended an impasse that has been building for weeks. Republicans say that because Democrats, who control the White House and both chambers of Congress, have worked to advance trillions in new spending without Republican support, the GOP won’t give Democrats any easy way to increase the borrowing limit.

Democrats say that lifting the debt limit is a shared responsibility of both parties, noting such votes during the Trump administration were bipartisan. A vote to increase the debt limit doesn’t authorize new spending; instead it essentially allows the Treasury Department to raise money to pay for expenses the government has authorized.

Using reconciliation would require Democrats to revise their current budget resolution, which they are using to advance a separate social-policy and climate spending package, to increase the debt limit through a stand-alone bill. That, in turn, would open up related Senate floor debates and amendment votes. The possibility that Republicans would drag out the debate and insist upon endless votes is why Democrats maintain it would be too risky to use the approach, because it could put the U.S. too close to running out of cash-management options.

Some Republicans said that they might be willing to make agreements with Democrats to keep the time allotted for debate and votes limited to move the legislation more quickly.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) also indicated that she hadn’t ruled out trying to make it easier for Democrats to raise the debt ceiling.

“I want to make sure we are doing everything we can to not send us into a situation of default, and I don’t even want to get close,” she said. She also said that Republicans could entertain making agreements with Democrats to speed up voting on debt-ceiling legislation if they used reconciliation.

Democrats could try again to advance a bill past the filibuster via unanimous consent, a technique that would allow Republicans to simply stand aside and let a bill advance. Such an effort was blocked last week, when Mr. McConnell objected.

They could also again attempt to recruit 10 Republicans to join 50 Democrats to assemble the 60 votes needed to stop debate and force a simple-majority vote on increasing the debt ceiling.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.), who lined up 46 Republican signatures for an August letter saying Republicans wouldn’t help Democrats raise the debt ceiling, reiterated he wanted Republicans to avoid providing any assistance. “The reason I wrote the letter is to make sure that would be less likely,” he said.

Write to Siobhan Hughes at siobhan.hughes@wsj.com and Lindsay Wise at lindsay.wise@wsj.com

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