The U.S. House voted Tuesday night to fund the government into early December, suspend the federal debt limit, and provide disaster and refugee aid, setting up a high-stakes showdown with Republicans who oppose the package despite the prospects of a looming fiscal crisis.
The Democratic-led House passed the measure by a vote of 220-211, strictly along party lines. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it is likely to falter because of overwhelming GOP opposition.
The federal government faces a shutdown if funding stops on Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, midnight next Thursday. Additionally, at some point in October the U.S. risks defaulting on its accumulated debt load if its borrowing limits are not waived or adjusted.
“Our country will suffer greatly if we do not act now to stave off this unnecessary and preventable crisis,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said shortly before the vote.
The package approved Tuesday would provide stopgap money to keep the government funded to Dec. 3 and extend borrowing authority through the end of 2022. It includes $28.6 billion in disaster relief for the aftermath of Hurricane Ida and other extreme weather events, and $6.3 billion to support Afghanistan evacuees in the fallout from the end of the 20-year war.
While suspending the debt ceiling allows the government to meet financial obligations already incurred, Republicans argued it would also facilitate a spending binge in the months ahead.
“I will not support signing a blank check as this majority is advancing the most reckless expansion of government in generations,” said Representative Dan Meuser, a Republican.
Backed by the White House, Democratic congressional leaders pushed ahead at a time of great uncertainty in Congress. Democrats are also trying to gather support for President Joe Biden’s broad “build back better” agenda, which would have a price tag of up to $3.5 trillion over 10 years.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he was not about to help pay off past debts when Biden was about to pile on more. He said since Democrats control the White House and Congress, it’s their problem to find the votes.
“The debt ceiling will be raised as it always should be, but it will be raised by the Democrats,” McConnell said.
In the 50-50 Senate, Democrats will be hard-pressed to find 10 Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster.
“This is playing with fire,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.
The Treasury Department has been using “extraordinary measures” to fund the government since the last debt limit suspension expired July 31, and projects that at some point next month will run out cash reserves. Then, it will have to rely on incoming receipts to pay its obligations, now at $28.4 trillion.
That could force the Treasury to delay or miss payments, a devastating situation.
Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, warned if lawmakers allow a federal debt default “this economic scenario is cataclysmic.”
In a report being circulated by Democrats, Zandi warned that a potential downturn from government funding cutbacks would cost 6 million jobs and stock market losses would wipe out $15 trillion of household wealth.
Once a routine matter, raising the debt ceiling has become a political weapon of choice for Republicans in Washington ever since the 2011 arrival of tea party lawmakers who refused to allow the increase. At the time, they argued against more spending and the standoff triggered a fiscal crisis.
Echoing that strategy, McConnell is refusing to provide Republican votes, even though he also relied on Democratic votes help raise the debt ceiling when his party had the majority. He explained his current thinking to senators during a private lunch Tuesday.
Still, some Republican senators might have a tough time voting no.
Republican John Kennedy of Louisiana, whose state was battered by the hurricane and who is up for election next year, said he will likely vote for the increase. “My people desperately need the help,” he said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that “in our view, this should not be a controversial vote.” Psaki said Congress has raised the debt ceiling numerous times on a bipartisan basis, including three times under President Donald Trump.
Representative Rosa DeLauro, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, was forced to introduce another version of the bill Tuesday after some within the Democratic caucus objected to the inclusion of $1 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, which uses missiles to intercept short-range rockets fired into the country.
The Israel defense issue splits Democrats, but DeLauro assured colleagues that money for the weapons system would be included in the annual defense spending bill for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Hoyer went a step further and said he would bring a bill to the floor this week to replenish the Iron Dome system.
Republicans were highly critical of the change and vowed to stand as allies with Israel.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Democrats were negotiating among themselves over Biden’s big “build back better” package as the price tag likely slips to win over skeptical centrist lawmakers who view it as too much.
Publicly, the White House has remained confident the legislation will pass soon, despite sharp differences among progressives and moderates in the party over the eventual size of the package and a companion $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.
There has been a flurry of outreach from the White House to Democrats on Capitol Hill, and Biden himself was given a call sheet of lawmakers to cajole, even though his week was dominated by foreign policy, including his speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
The president has been talking to a wide number of lawmakers beyond his recent meetings with Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, two key centrist votes, according to a White House official familiar with the calls and granted anonymity to discuss them.
Biden’s big initiative touches almost all aspects of Americans’ lives. It would impose tax hikes on corporations and wealthy Americans earning beyond $400,000 a year and plow that money back into federal programs for young and old. It would increase and expand government health, education and family support programs for households, children and seniors, and boost environmental infrastructure programs to fight climate change.
With Republicans opposed to Biden’s vision, Democrats have no votes to spare in the Senate, and just a few votes’ margin in the House.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised a Sept. 27 vote on a companion bill, a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill of public works projects that enjoys widespread support from both parties in the Senate, though House Republicans mostly oppose it.
Even though that bipartisan bill should be an easy legislative lift, it too faces a political obstacle course. Dozens of lawmakers in the Congressional Progressive Caucus are expected to vote against it if it comes ahead of the broader Biden package. And centrists won’t vote for the broader package unless they are assured the bipartisan bill will also be included.