House Passes Debt Deal; Bill Advances to Senate as Deadline Nears

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks to reporters Wednesday on Capitol Hill. Negotiations over the debt ceiling have been a tall test of his leadership.

WASHINGTON – The House voted Wednesday night to pass a painstakingly negotiated bill to suspend the debt ceiling, limit federal spending and avert a catastrophic U.S. government default, securing a major win for the GOP and the White House that seemed elusive just days ago.

The deal – brokered over the weekend by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and President Biden – was an enormous test for the narrow Republican House majority, their leader’s shaky hold over his party and a White House that had long refused to compromise on the debt ceiling at all. At times, talks unraveled; at others, McCarthy and Biden projected confidence that they could strike a deal and stave off an unprecedented default on the nation’s debt.

In the end, they got a 314-117 bipartisan vote for passage of a 99-page bill that now heads to the Senate, where lawmakers will rush to enact the legislation before Monday – when the United States will no longer be able to pay its bills.

No one got everything they wanted. Many liberal Democrats opposed the bill, objecting to curbs on government spending and to new work requirements for some recipients of federal food stamps and family welfare benefits. Far-right Republicans also slammed the agreement for not securing more aggressive spending cuts. And some GOP members cast doubt on McCarthy’s fitness to lead, underscoring the fractures within the party since McCarthy won the speakership earlier this year after 15 rounds of voting and multiple concessions.

“Washington’s spending addiction is both irresponsible and just wrong,” McCarthy said as the House neared a vote. “So let’s stop it. I’ll be honest, tonight’s bill doesn’t stop it. But for the first time, we begin to turn the ship. This shouldn’t be our last.”

The debt ceiling caps the amount the U.S. government can borrow. The current level is $31.4 trillion, and the Treasury Department has been using what it calls “extraordinary measures” since January to shuffle money around in the federal budget to avoid needing to take on more debt. The deal would suspend the limit until Jan. 2, 2025. The Congressional Budget Office says the proposal will reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.

Negotiators from both parties claimed victory.

“We have hit our credit card limit as a nation,” said Rep. Garret Graves (La.), a key representative for the GOP in talks with the White House. “We don’t have the ability to pay the monthly payment. And so we’re in a quandary. We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to raise that credit card limit. And just like you would do with your own family, you would have a conversation, Mr. Speaker, with your child, and you would say, ‘Hey, how did you get yourself in this situation? We’ve got to fix it.'”

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said Biden and his party had rescued the economy from GOP threats to tank it over spending.

“President Biden understood, despite the hostage-taking situation that you unnecessarily thrust the country into, that we had an obligation, a responsibility, to avoid a catastrophic default,” Jeffries said. “That’s exactly what President Biden and Democrats have been able to do.”

Biden hailed the vote in a statement late Wednesday.

“This budget agreement is a bipartisan compromise. Neither side got everything it wanted,” he said. “I have been clear that the only path forward is a bipartisan compromise that can earn the support of both parties. This agreement meets that test.”

The bill got the support of “a majority of the majority” in the final House vote, satisfying an informal Republican guideline against passing legislation mostly on the strength of Democratic support.

Timing for the Senate to act is unclear. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said lawmakers may need to be in Washington through the weekend to get the legislation passed before Monday, when the Treasury Department has warned that the United States will no longer be able to pay all of its bills.

Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday morning, Schumer said there was “no margin for error” on passage: “Any needless delay, any last-minute brinkmanship at this point would be an unacceptable risk.”

The bipartisan 241-187 afternoon vote in the House for the rule allowing Wednesday night’s action was unusual, because the minority party almost never supports such measures. Because Republicans didn’t have 218 of their own members to approve the rule, Democrats worked to provide enough of their own to keep the bill moving along.

A small group of chosen House Democrats discussed via text messages throughout the day whether it was worth voting for the rule, concluding that they would do so if leadership gave them a signal, according to two people familiar with the coordination efforts. When Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), who was presiding over the vote, asked whether all lawmakers had voted, Jeffries flashed a green card to dozens of Democrats waiting in the well of the chamber, who immediately voted yes.

“House Democrats are going to make sure the country doesn’t default. Period. Full stop,” Jeffries told reporters after a party caucus meeting.

Democrats stressed that their support for the initial parliamentary vote would not come without a price. In exchange, the Democratic leader will win a private pledge for concessions from McCarthy on legislation considered this summer or fall.

McCarthy’s office did not respond to a request for comment. But when asked by reporters Wednesday whether he would need to cut a deal to have Democrats vote for the rule, McCarthy responded, “No, no.”

The House speaker was cheerful on the floor during the vote, shaking hands and smiling through small talk as his colleagues continued to back the debt deal he and key negotiators struck. There was a little celebration when McCarthy reached the “majority of the majority” threshold. But the mood changed to concern as he and other leaders kept watching a computer tallying the vote on the floor, which showed that more Democrats were voting for the bill than Republicans.

When the vote was finally called, Graves found his partner throughout the negotiations, Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (N.C.), and dramatically knelt down to give him a high-five before hugging him.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) walked up to Jeffries, her successor as top Democrat, and briefly spoke to him on her way out of the chamber before proudly patting him on the chest. Both emerged from their quick interaction with a smile.

On the left, liberal members of Congress were dismayed that the deal imposes new work requirements for certain federal programs and irritated that Biden had to negotiate with McCarthy at all over the debt ceiling, the legal cap on how much the government can borrow.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday morning, “We need to do multiple things at the same time: Prevent default and send the message that holding the U.S. economy hostage is not acceptable,” adding that she would oppose the legislation. “I think we can send that message as a party today, that Kevin McCarthy needs to put up his votes. And if he needs mine, he can come get it, and he can come negotiate some things away.”

But the centrist, bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus endorsed the measure. “In divided government, you have to actually work together to find a solution that can make it across the finish line,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), a co-chair of the group, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, though some members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus spoke out against the bill, other Democrats found some victories inside the complex measure worthy of support.

“There’s some good, there’s some bad and some ugly,” Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) said while leaving a meeting with White House officials Wednesday. Ruiz, the main author of the House version of the Pact Act, which was designed to boost health-care resources for veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits on deployment, said the permanent funding stream created by the bill would solidify his legislation for years to come.

Ruiz also said that while the work requirements would hurt some Americans, overall more people would receive food stamps under the expanded eligibility in this bill.

Asked what the overall mood of the caucus was, Ruiz said: “Relieved.”

The Senate spent Wednesday working to be ready to debate the bill as soon as the House passed it. Several members in both parties want the chamber to consider amendments, but leaders said they don’t expect any to be adopted.

The debt ceiling drama has exposed deep opposition toward McCarthy from some far-right Republicans, including those who say he is not fit to be speaker. Several members of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus voted against the rule enabling Wednesday night’s vote and indicated they would oppose final passage of the deal, too.

After the vote, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), a far-right lawmaker who has expressed concerns about McCarthy’s leadership, was dismayed that more Democrats voted for the bill than Republicans.

“We were told they’d never put a bill on the floor that would take more Democrats than ours to pass,” Biggs said.

But McCarthy pointed to the overwhelming support from GOP members in response: “I said I’d get two-thirds. What’s two-thirds of our conference?”

Key GOP negotiators Graves and McHenry said Wednesday that they were not worried about McCarthy’s speakership. Talking to reporters, Graves also said a handful of far-right members were wrong to slam an unfinished bill. House Freedom Caucus members including Reps. Chip Roy (Tex.), Dan Bishop (N.C.) and Ralph Norman (S.C.) are right to argue the country faces a debt and spending crisis, Graves said, but he said the group made a “tactical flaw” in shooting down the agreement before it even existed.

“They were a group of people who started saying things that were absolutely inaccurate about this deal, started bad-mouthing it and defining it before it was done,” Graves said. “My guess is that there were concerns on their part that ‘Oh, no, what happens if this goes south and we’re part of this?’ And they didn’t realize that this was going to be the largest savings in history.”

The criticism did not stop Republican or Democratic leadership from aggressively whipping support for the legislation. Between conference calls, news conferences and in-person meetings, both parties had been trying to sell the deal as a win for their constituencies, no matter the concessions made.

The measure had first passed a procedural test Tuesday, when the House Rules Committee cleared the way for the bipartisan deal to come before the full chamber. Initially, attention was fixed on a handful of far-right committee members who could have thwarted the bill’s future by voting against it there. But by Tuesday evening, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a libertarian-minded conservative who sometimes sides with the Freedom Caucus, indicated he would vote to move the measure forward, giving Republicans enough support to adopt the rule and handing a win to GOP leadership.

The deal would suspend the debt ceiling for two years and allow the government to pay its bills without a hitch if signed into law before Monday. In a concession to Republicans, the plan would limit domestic spending for two years and impose some new work requirements for certain people receiving food stamps and those in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. It also would pare back roughly $20 billion of the $80 billion approved last year for an expansion of the IRS.

Democrats, meanwhile, are touting the fact that White House negotiators did not give in to Republican demands for steep cuts on domestic spending. The deal would also suspend the debt ceiling beyond the 2024 election.