US Debt Ceiling Agreement’s Winding Road to Congressional Passage

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic President Joe Biden and Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy reached an agreement on Saturday to suspend the federal government’s $31.4 trillion limit on U.S. government borrowing, to avert a catastrophic default from June 5.

Their challenge is not over. They must now guide him through the deep partisan divides in the tightly Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Democratic-controlled Senate:


Biden and House Speaker McCarthy gave the go-ahead to the deal drafted by their respective aides in closed-door negotiations over the past few days.

This needs to be enshrined in legislation, which McCarthy said would happen on Sunday. Then McCarthy pledged to give House members 72 hours to read it, and passage through the House and Senate will each take several more days.

Not long ago. The Treasury Department has warned that the federal government will not be able to pay all of its bills on June 5.

Top Republicans and Democrats from both chambers have already scheduled or held meetings to brief their ranks on the details of the bill in an effort to convince potential opponents to line up.

This is a key moment, because the Republican and Democratic “whips” will count supporters and opponents. A revolt by the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which has a lot of clout with McCarthy, could derail the effort if its members feel the deal doesn’t cut spending enough.

Some liberal Democrats, meanwhile, could vote against the bill if they feel it cedes too much ground to Republicans.

With the whip’s account in hand, McCarthy will have to decide if the bill has a good enough chance of passing to move forward. Otherwise, he could either not hold a vote on the bill and go back to the drawing board, or take the riskier move of sending it to the full House in hopes of securing a victory.


If things look dire at any point, the House could resort to a rarely-used emergency maneuver: a “discharge petition” to put a “clean” increase in the debt ceiling to a vote – without any budgetary provisions. House Democrats backed the idea but could only succeed if enough of the Republican majority joined them.

Biden could attempt the untested legal theory of invoking the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution declaring that “the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned” and thus clear the way for him to allow more loans. This would likely be challenged immediately in court.


The House, which Republicans control by a narrow majority of 222 to 213, should act first. A simple majority – at least 218 votes if all members are present – will be required for passage.

Bipartisanship will be in order because some far-right Republicans or some Liberal Democrats unhappy with the result could vote no.

Debate and adoption in the House, including preliminary votes, could take a day or two.


If passed by the House, the legislation goes to the Senate where Democrats hold a 51-49 majority over Republicans. As in the House, a vote on passage might not be purely partisan, as senators from each party might find different reasons to oppose the bill.

To pass, the measure would need the support of at least nine Republicans to clear the chamber’s “filibuster” rule, which requires 60 of 100 members to advance most laws.

Consideration of the bill by the Senate could take more than a week.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has full control over when the bill comes to a vote. But individual senators can slow down the process by insisting on procedural maneuvers, including 30 hours of debate on whether to begin debate and another 30 hours of debate on the bill itself.

The Senate is expected to pass the bill without any changes to the House measure. Otherwise, it would have to be sent back to the House for another vote.

Should there be a 50-50 tie in the Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris could vote to win the passage 51-50.

Once passed by the House and Senate, the deal would go to the White House for Biden to sign the law.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Christopher Cushing)

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