Despite initial indications that Democrats wouldn’t budge on the debt ceiling and that Republicans had no intention of playing ball either way, Congress did finally work together and agree to fund the government – for now, at least – just hours before the deadline that is the end of fiscal year (FY) 2021. The Senate passed a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government through December 3, and the House passed it not long after. President Joe Biden signed the bill into law Thursday evening, and just like that, the threat of shutdown was averted … for a while.
But here’s the kicker: The new CR doesn’t address the debt limit at all. The House has already passed a bill to suspend the debt limit until December 2022, but will it gain enough support in the Senate? If not, the nation could hit that ceiling and default on the national debt for the first time in U.S. history.
Living on the Edge
Congressional partisans have battled over the funding of the government for more than a week, with each side in each legislative body working its own angle. In the House, Democrats used their majority to hammer through exactly what they wanted – a CR with a debt limit suspension and then, when that failed in the Senate, just a debt limit suspension – without significant GOP support. They have the numbers, so why not? House Republicans had vowed to do their best to obstruct this, but their power was limited by their number.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) tried on Monday, September 27, to pass the bill that cleared the House earlier that day, which would have funded the government and suspended the debt limit into December, with the debt limit to reset afterward to accommodate however much had been borrowed. While it cleared the House without GOP support, it failed in the Senate. Senate Republicans had made it clear they wouldn’t support the bill, and some even suggested the Democrats should use their last chance at budget resolution to fund the government on their own.
Schumer didn’t take that route, however, forcing a vote in the more traditional manner. As expected, it failed utterly. The rhetoric ramped up a bit, and it seemed certain the Democrats wouldn’t lay off the idea of suspending then raising the debt ceiling or that Republicans would support any Democrat-led measure, lest it expedite the passage by reconciliation of Biden’s $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act.
But things started to cool down Wednesday. Schumer said Senate Democrats would try to pass a continuing resolution without addressing the debt limit, but added that once the government was funded, it would be time to come back to that issue. The same day, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced a new plan: Split the government funding and debt ceiling into two separate bills. This, when added to Schumer’s remarks, seemed promising – even if House Dems rammed through the debt ceiling increase without bothering to pass government funding.
Finally, on the last day of the fiscal year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the Senate would pass a funding bill to avoid the impending shutdown. Over the course of just a few hours, a bill to fund the government through December 3 – which includes more than $28 billion in emergency funding for states impacted by summer storms and wildfires and another $6.3 billion to help resettle Afghan refugees, but does not address the debt limit – made its way through the Senate and the House, and was then signed into law by the president. The CR cleared the Senate 65-35 and the House 254-175. That’s mostly Democrats in support, of course, but it includes a fair amount of GOP support as well. It’s certainly more bipartisanship than we’ve seen lately. Both sides, it seems, decided it was best to avoid the inevitable game of shifting blame and juggling public opinion once the shutdown begins.
The End … Or Is It?
And so the story ends … or does it? There’s still a bill from the House that suspends the debt ceiling until December 16, 2022, then resets it to whatever new debt has accrued by that time – an issue Sen. Schumer has promised to come back to once the government is funded. Well, now it’s funded – for a while, anyway. And just like that, the battle will resume. Republicans have no intention of removing the debt limit just in time for Democrats to use the reconciliation process to saddle Americans with another $3.5 trillion in debt.
Even outside the debt ceiling/human infrastructure battle to come, Congress is going to have to work together once again by December 3 to either fund the full year or, if nothing else, kick the can just a little farther down the road. Else it’ll be the same old song and dance, all over again.
But for now, the impending doom has been staved off, even if only for a while.
~ Read more from James Fite.