WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats, looking for a way to raise the debt limit without Republican support, are considering changing the chamber’s rules and allowing the debt limit to be increased with a simple majority.
Creating a new exception to the filibuster is gaining support among Senate Democrats, four sources with knowledge of the discussion told NBC News. All asked to speak anonymously to detail closed-door discussions.
Congress has until Oct. 18 to raise the limit, or the Treasury says the U.S. may no longer be able to meet its financial obligations.
The filibuster has become the target of liberal activists, who say that the Senate rule that requires 60 votes to pass most pieces of legislation is standing in the way of Democrats’ enacting sweeping pieces of legislation, including expanding government programs, enacting gun control and climate measures. Moderate Senate Democrats have opposed getting rid of the filibuster.
The debt ceiling has become the latest flashpoint in Congress, with an approaching deadline and partisan fighting over how it should be lifted, even if both Republicans and Democrats say it should be raised.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who is one of the strongest supporters of keeping the filibuster, was asked about the potential of changing the rules.
“We’re not going to default,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “I just know that there’s enough people here that will not let this country fall to default.”
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill, said Democrats “ought to have that conversation” about changing the filibuster rules to raise the debt limit.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said Tuesday that Republicans were setting the house on fire and using the filibuster to block firefighters from putting it out. “It could destroy our credit, jobs, and family savings. We must reform the filibuster,” he said on Twitter.
Senate Republicans say that Democrats should use a rule known as reconciliation to raise the ceiling without Republican support – a complicated process that could require hundreds of votes. It is the same process Democrats are currently using to try to pass a massive social safety net bill that could cost as much as $3.5 trillion.
But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday ruled out using that process for the debt limit increase.
“We do not have the luxury of using a drawn out, convoluted and risky process,” Schumer told reporters.
Schumer warned that the United States is getting “dangerously close” to hitting the debt limit, which would lead to a default on the nation’s debt.
Speaking on the Senate floor, the New York Democrat said that lawmakers would hold a procedural vote Wednesday. The vote is expected to fail because there are not 10 Republicans willing to join Democrats.
Schumer said Monday that Congress must pass legislation that would raise the debt ceiling by the end of the week.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Tuesday that Oct. 18 is the deadline before the U.S. “will be out of extraordinary measures, have limited cash, and likely to exhaust it very quickly.” She warned that a default could plunge the U.S. economy into a recession.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he supports raising the limit, as the Senate did in 2017 when he was majority leader, but has said that Democrats need to handle the issue on their own without the help of GOP lawmakers. Last week, Senate Republicans blocked a vote on a government funding bill offered by Democrats because it included a debt ceiling extension.
Schumer argued Tuesday that Democrats can prevent default on Wednesday in a procedural vote if Republicans “just get out of the damn way.”
Separately, McConnell said Tuesday that Democrats have had “plenty of time” to execute the debt ceiling increase and “have chosen not to do it.”
“Look, the debt ceiling needs to be addressed. The only question is who should address it,” McConnell told reporters, at their weekly news conference. “We laid out a path for two months here, that’s easily done. There’s plenty of time additionally this month to do the job, and I hope our friends on the other side will step up and take care of it.
President Biden told reporters on Tuesday after his trip to Michigan that he will work around the clock with lawmakers to come to an agreement on a deal. He also added that carving out the filibuster to raise the debt limit is “a real possibility.”
“I’ll be on the phone until this is finished and maybe meeting in person,” he said.
The president also told reporters, before leaving Michigan, that he intends to talk to McConnell, and does not believe Republican lawmakers will jeopardize the country’s economy by stalling efforts.
“I don’t think they’re going to end up being that irresponsible,” Biden said.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a separate interview on CNBC on Tuesday that Democrats “can, at any time they want, raise the debt ceiling. They can do it using only Democratic votes under budget reconciliation.”
“There’s not going to be a default. Schumer knows that, Biden knows that, Pelosi knows that. But they want to play political games first,” he said.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Tuesday that Republicans are “trying to confuse and conflate the issue” of the debt limit.
“But the American people are smart. They know that when they get bills that they’ve decided to incur, they ought to pay them. And we ought to pay the bills,” he said. “The last thing this economy needs as we claw our way out of a pandemic is to send the whole economy into a tailspin.”