WASHINGTON — The United States is less than two weeks away from the government's deadline to breach the debt ceiling, and leaders in the nation's capital are at a stalemate about how to avert what could be a devastating default.
The House of Representatives has passed a bill to extend the borrowing limit through December 2022, but that bill faces a logjam in the Senate ahead of an expected procedural vote Wednesday.
Republicans have threatened to filibuster it. At least 10 GOP votes are needed to overcome that in the divided chamber. Democratic leaders say they should drop the filibuster and allow a vote, which would enable their 50 members to pass it on their own.
Republicans say Democrats should instead use a complicated budget process to raise the debt limit and enable the U.S. to pay its bills, which can be done without Republican support. Democrats say no.
So far, neither side is budging. The Treasury Department has set an Oct. 18 deadline to tackle the debt ceiling or risk "catastrophic" economic consequences if the U.S. cannot pay its bills.
Here are five possible endgames — and the complications of each.
Republicans blink and allow a vote
The fastest way to resolve the issue would be for Republicans to back off the filibuster and let the Senate hold a vote at a simple majority threshold. Democrats could pass it with their 50 members and the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
But just one senator can object and force a "cloture" vote, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told NBC News on Tuesday he would do so. It would then take 60 votes to overcome that. That means a minimum of 10 Republicans — and for now, there are no takers.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has set up a procedural vote on Wednesday to test the GOP's will to maintain its filibuster.
"If Republicans don't get out of the way and let the Senate take action now, our government will in all likelihood enter default for the first time ever," he said.
Democrats blink and use budget process
This remains an option for Democrats. But it'd be more time-consuming. They'd have to revise the budget resolution for their multitrillion-dollar economic package, hold a "vote-a-rama" to allow Senate amendments and pass the same measure in both chambers before they can write a debt limit bill.
President Joe Biden and Schumer have rejected this route. Biden on Monday called it an "incredibly complicated, cumbersome process." Schumer called it "a drawn out, convoluted and risky process."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said this week that he had called on Democrats to use the budget process months ago and that they should "get moving."
"The majority doesn’t need our votes," he said. "They just want a bipartisan shortcut around procedural hurdles they can clear on their own."
Democrats pierce the filibuster
If Republicans maintain their filibuster, some Democrats have called for using the so-called nuclear option to change the rules and create a legislative exception to the ability to block a debt limit hike.
"I think we ought to have that conversation," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters.
"The idea that you can filibuster the debt ceiling is outrageous. That to me discredits the argument that the filibuster is in fact the way to get bipartisanship. Baloney," he said.
But that option would require all 50 Democrats. Schumer did not say Tuesday whether it's an option.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., threw cold water on that idea on Monday.
"The filibuster has nothing to do with the debt ceiling. We have other tools that we can use. And if we have to use them we should use them," Manchin told reporters. "We can prevent default."
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., another filibuster proponent, did not respond when asked Monday at the Capitol whether she wants to use reconciliation to lift the debt ceiling.
A trillion dollar coin?
Some say Biden can resolve the issue with executive action.
One idea is for the Treasury Department to mint a platinum coin worth $1 trillion. Another is for the administration to invoke the 14th Amendment to say the debt limit statute is unconstitutional and continue borrowing to pay the country's bills.
But White House press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed both ideas.
"We obviously look at a range of options and none of those options were viable, either because they wouldn't be accepted by the Federal Reserve, by the guidance of our Treasury secretary, or just by legal restrictions," she said Monday. "So we know that the only path forward here is through Congress acting."
Debt limit breach
This is the doomsday scenario the Treasury Department has warned of, setting Oct. 18 as the day of reckoning that, without action, could spark a financial crisis and plunge the economy into recession.
"Failing to increase the debt limit would have catastrophic economic consequences," the department said. "It would cause the government to default on its legal obligations — an unprecedented event in American history."