Biden gives Democrats a green light to weaken the filibuster for debt ceiling votes

Biden gives Democrats a green light to weaken the filibuster for debt ceiling votes
Phil Roeder

After previously opposing such a move, President Joe Biden on Tuesday said it is a "real possibility" that Democrats will change Senate rules to exempt debt ceiling votes from the 60-vote legislative filibuster—a reversal that comes as the U.S. is careening toward a default on its financial obligations.

Progressives viewed Biden's brief comments to reporters as a green light that Senate Democrats should take advantage of as their Republican counterparts, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), continue to obstruct efforts to suspend the debt limit and avert a potentially devastating economic crisis.

"Good," progressive organizer Kai Newkirk tweeted in response to the president's remarks on the filibuster. "Do it, Democrats."

Earlier Tuesday, Biden warned that there are "not many options" left for Democrats to raise or suspend the debt ceiling before October 18, the day the Treasury Department says it will exhaust its ability to prevent a default. The debt ceiling is the amount of money the U.S. can legally borrow to cover its obligations.

"There's not much time left to do it by reconciliation," the president said, referring to the filibuster-proof process that Democrats are currently using to advance social spending and climate investments without GOP support. Biden expressed concern that if Democrats include a debt ceiling measure in the reconciliation package, Republicans could easily gum up the works and "keep us on the floor for hundreds of amendments."

"They can just delay this," Biden said.

In an interview on CNBC Tuesday morning, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said it would be "catastrophic to not pay the government's bills, for us to be in a position where we lacked the resources to pay the government's bills."

"I fully expect it would cause a recession as well," added Yellen, who has voiced support for abolishing the debt limit outright.

NBC Newsreported late Tuesday that in the face of Republicans' unwavering obstruction, Senate Democrats are "considering changing the chamber's rules and allowing the debt limit to be increased with a simple majority."

Rather than killing the legislative filibuster entirely—as progressives have repeatedly demanded in recent months—Senate Democrats are weighing "a new exception to the filibuster" that would exempt debt ceiling votes from the archaic rule, which Republicans have recently used to tank popular voting rights legislation and other Democratic priorities.

Senate Democrats would need the support of every member of their caucus plus a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris to tweak or eliminate the filibuster.

"Senate Republicans are playing a dangerous game with the debt ceiling," Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) tweeted Tuesday. "It could destroy our credit, jobs, and family savings. We must reform the filibuster."

One economist estimated last month that a debt ceiling breach could cost the U.S. economy six million jobs and wipe out $15 trillion in household wealth.

McConnell has made clear that his caucus will not help Senate Democrats raise or suspend the debt ceiling, something Republicans voted to do three times under President Donald Trump—who oversaw a roughly $8 trillion increase in the national debt.

On Wednesday, Republicans are expected to filibuster Senate Democrats' attempt to pass a standalone measure that would suspend the debt ceiling until after the 2022 midterm elections.

"We aren't asking Republicans to support it when it comes time for a vote," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a floor speech Tuesday. "We only ask that they get out of the way as Democrats pass it on our own... Every single day we delay taking action, we increase the chances of doing irreversible damage to our global financial system, our economic recovery, and trust in our country's ability to pay its debts."

Earlier this week, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) offered one scenario in which Republicans could conceivably change their position on the debt ceiling.

"Some Republicans would vote to raise the debt limit if they knew the Democrats were going to abandon the $3.5 trillion package," Collins told reporters Monday, pointing to a centerpiece of Biden's domestic policy agenda.

The Maine Republican added that such a deal "appears unlikely, but that's an agreement that could be reached."

In response to Collins' comments, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) tweeted that "Senate Republicans are holding our economy hostage."

"Mitch McConnell claimed he isn't making demands for lifting the debt ceiling, but Susan Collins gave the game away: they're demanding the president abandon the agenda the American people elected him to pass," Beyer wrote. "We won't do that."

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