Congress Confronts Treacherous Debt Limit Timeline

Negotiators are closing in on a deal, but lawmakers would still face significant hurdles to pass it by June 1


Even as the White House and House Republicans are reportedly closing in on a deal to raise the debt ceiling, lawmakers said the path to getting an agreement signed, sealed and delivered by this time next week remained murky.

With members of Congress flocking out of Washington on Thursday — and President Joe Biden set to travel to Camp David on Friday and Wilmington, Del., on Sunday — for Memorial Day Weekend, top House Republicans remained tight-lipped about their plan to get a potential deal through the House before a June 1 deadline. 

The deal taking shape would lift the debt limit through 2024 and incentivize Congress to pass all 12 annual spending bills. The New York Times reports it would also impose a two-year cap on discretionary spending, increase defense spending and roll back IRS funding.

Negotiators are still at an impasse over imposing stricter work requirements for some welfare programs and overhauling energy permitting.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has repeatedly warned that the government could be unable to pay its bills as early as June 1. She noted Wednesday that a more precise deadline for default would be given to Congress soon after reports that the Treasury Department was asking agencies whether they could delay payments beyond that date. 

Though some Republicans have openly questioned the validity of the June 1 deadline, top negotiators have said they’re continuing to work under the assumption that they must act by then.

And there are still a lot of hurdles they will need to clear in the next six days:

First, let’s make a deal

Negotiators still actually need to come to an agreement on a deal to lift the debt ceiling while also satisfying GOP demands on spending cuts. 

The two sides are floating a deal that would lift the debt limit through 2024, but finer points about spending levels and other issues are outstanding. Republican negotiators sounded more optimistic about the prospect of an agreement on Thursday. 

“There’s a lot more work that has to be done,” Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), one of the top Republican negotiators, said on Thursday afternoon. “But the work that we’re doing centers in on a shorter and shorter array of issues.”

Writing and reviewing the bill

Once a deal is reached, members of Congress will need time to write and review the resulting legislation. 

McHenry has said that it could take 24 to 48 hours for the bill to be authored, and McCarthy has committed to allowing members 72 hours to review the measure. The House is expected to move a “slimmed-down” bill as opposed to a measure that spans hundreds of pages, according to Reuters, which reported Thursday that negotiators are about $70 billion apart on discretionary spending. 

A number of lawmakers said while leaving the Capitol on Thursday that they did not plan on having to return to Washington over the weekend, even as McCarthy has asked them to be ready to hustle back on 24 hours’ notice.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration has been clear about how urgent it is to get a deal and pass a bill quickly. She wouldn’t comment on the timeline for getting a bill to the president’s desk by June 1, but downplayed how long it may take to draft legislative text.

“You could write a piece of legislation in minutes and get that done and make sure that Congress does its constitutional duty,” Jean-Pierre said, echoing previous comments by Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young, one of the White House’s negotiators. “It's not a hard thing to do.”

Bipartisan support for a deal needed

Any deal Biden and House Republican strike will almost certainly require a bipartisan coalition of members to muscle it through the chamber. The outer flanks of both parties have already lined up to blast any deal that, for Democrats, cuts too much spending or, for Republicans, doesn’t cut spending enough.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) told reporters that he would not approve of a deal that eliminates a number of spending cuts that were included in the debt ceiling bill House Republicans passed last month.

“Someone explain to me why that’s an off ramp that should be taken now?” Roy said. “I think it’s an exit ramp about five exits too early.”

The angst over the terms of a deal extends to Democrats. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said this week that “Democrats are not going to vote for a bill that screws poor people.”

Then comes the Senate

If a debt limit bill clears the House sometime next week, it will need to be expedited in the Senate before heading to Biden for a signature – assuming a lawmaker doesn’t throw a wrench in that plan. 

At least one Republican, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, is already threatening to slow down a quick passage through the chamber if he disagrees with the legislation.

“I will use every procedural tool at my disposal to impede a debt-ceiling deal that doesn’t contain substantial spending and budgetary reforms,” Lee tweeted Thursday. “I fear things are moving in that direction. If they do, that proposal will not face smooth sailing in the Senate.”

Lee and others could attempt to muck up the Senate process by objecting to anything that requires consent, including agreement on debate time and getting out of quorum calls, a senior aide to a conservative senator told The Messenger. 

And if lawmakers really start to feel the time crunch, they could try to pass a short-term extension of the debt limit while they continue to hammer out a longer-term deal. But McCarthy has ruled that out as an option. 

Nolan D. McCaskill contributed. 

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