Home Debt House Dems eye discharge petition as escape hatch on debt ceiling 

House Dems eye discharge petition as escape hatch on debt ceiling 

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As the debt ceiling fight heats up on Capitol Hill, House Democrats are eyeing an end-around strategy to bypass Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — and the conservative hawks driving his agenda — to avoid a federal default later in the year.

Democratic leaders have already begun talks about tapping a procedural tool, known as a discharge petition, to force a debt-limit hike to the floor without the accompanying cuts McCarthy is demanding, according to sources familiar with the closed-door discussions. That would align House Democrats with President Biden, who is insisting on a “clean” debt-ceiling increase absent any other budget changes.

“We’ve had some preliminary conversations about that, and we’ll do what we have to do to prevent economic catastrophe,” said a member of Democratic leadership, who spoke anonymously to discuss private talks. 

The timing is crucial — and complicated — since the archaic rules governing discharge petitions dictate they can be considered only on certain days of the month, and only after the underlying legislation has sat in committee for at least 30 legislative days. Those eyeing that calendar expect they’ll have to launch the process sometime in March to avoid a default over the summer.

“The question is, if we were to have somebody file something, what’s the best timing to do that in order for it to get ripe at the moment when we need [it]?”

The discharge petition — an obscure mechanism empowering 218 lawmakers to pass bills the Speaker refuses to consider — is almost never successful, because it requires members of the ruling party to defy their own leadership. But this year may be different.

Already, some moderate Republicans are signaling a willingness to join Democrats to force a debt-limit vote if McCarthy, pressured by his right flank, refuses to do so.

“A discharge petition would only take myself and four of my colleagues on the GOP side to sign with Democrats, if that’s necessary,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, told CNN.

Congress is not expected to vote on the debt-ceiling until the summer, when the Treasury Department is slated to exhaust its debt-paying options and the country faces an unprecedented federal default. But the debate launches in earnest this week, with a high-stakes meeting on Wednesday between Biden and McCarthy at the White House.

The president has insisted he won’t negotiate on the issue, noting that raising the debt limit merely allows the government to make good on past obligations. And his House allies are backing him up, particularly when it comes to their defense of the major entitlement programs. 

“They have said there are cuts they want to make to Social Security and Medicare,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.). “Democrats will never agree to that.”

Heading into the meeting, McCarthy is insisting Republicans are focused elsewhere — “We take Social Security and Medicare off the table,” he said Sunday — but is also amplifying demands for steep cuts to unspecified programs.

“We cannot continue just to spend more money and leverage the debt of the future of America,” he said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” program. “We’ve got to get to a balanced budget.”

The debate highlights an early consequence of the concessions McCarthy made to his conservative detractors in order to win the Speaker’s gavel in January, which included a vow to keep the debt ceiling off the floor unless it came with efforts to slash federal spending. McCarthy also agreed to empower a single lawmaker to launch the process of ousting the Speaker — a change that’s now looming over the debt ceiling debate. 

“Our obligation, to me, is first and foremost: hold in check this bloated, woke, weaponized, wasteful government,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who was among the McCarthy holdouts who forced the changes to weaken the Speakership. “Shrink Washington; grow America.”

The resulting partisan impasse has heightened the fears of a default and elevated the notion that a discharge petition may eventually be the best chance of avoiding one. 

“They’re the majority party, they ought to have a bill on the floor that raises the debt ceiling and meets our obligations, period,” Cicilline said. “If they don’t do that, we have to be prepared to do whatever we can to protect the country and the economy of this country.”

Others were even more emphatic. Asked if he’d endorse a discharge petition, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) didn’t hesitate. 

“If it’s a clean debt ceiling — in a heartbeat,” he said. 

Washington compiles deficits when incoming revenues — largely from tax receipts — fall short of the costs to run the federal government. The current debt, at roughly $31.4 trillion, represents the accumulation of annual deficits registered by administrations of both parties over the course of decades.  

Raising the debt limit does not authorize or allocate new federal spending, but simply allows the Treasury to borrow additional funds to cover expenditures already approved by Congress. The vote was once routine — President Reagan raised the limit almost 20 times — but has become controversial more recently as conservatives have sought to leverage their votes to rein in federal spending. 

“The people who are in control here make me nostalgic for Newt Gingrich,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). 

Not all Democrats are ready to endorse the discharge petition strategy. Some are demanding that Republicans release a specific budget plan, confident that, once revealed, the proposed cuts would spark such a public backlash that GOP leaders would be forced to abandon them before the debt ceiling vote hits the floor. 

“We have to show the American people what they really are about. And hopefully that’s enough,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Both sides are guilty of some degree of hypocrisy when it comes to the debt limit debate. 

While serving as a senator in 2006, Biden had opposed a debt ceiling hike to protest the policies of then-President Bush, which included a series of tax cuts that piled trillions of dollars onto federal deficits. 

“My vote against the debt limit increase cannot change the fact that we have incurred this debt already, and will no doubt incur more,” Biden said at the time. “It is  a statement that I refuse to be associated with the policies that brought us to this point.”

More recently, GOP leaders raised little protest when President Trump raised the debt limit three times in four years, while adding almost $7.8 trillion to the debt. And in 2021, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) supported the concept of the debt-limit hike, but said he’d vote against it. The responsibility, he said at the time, was that of the party in power. 

“The debt ceiling will need to be raised,” he said. “But who does that depends on who the American people elect.”

This year, the minority Democrats are promising a different approach. While Democrats acknowledge that endorsing a discharge petition might bail out McCarthy, the more important consideration, they say, is preventing an economy-shaking default.

“We’re preventing economic failure, and Kevin McCarthy will have been on the side of catastrophe,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). “So if we bail him out it’s because the country needs us to take action.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell (N.J.) echoed that message. 

“It’d be a good time to show him,” Pascrell said, “that there’s something more important than him.”

–Updated at 7:01 a.m.

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