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Senate passes bipartisan bill to fast-track debt ceiling hike, avoid default

The legislation creates a convoluted process to suspend the filibuster and perform a simple task.
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WASHINGTON — The Senate passed a bill Thursday that will enable Congress to lift the debt ceiling and avert what would be the first-ever default in U.S. history.

The legislation, which already cleared the House, passed the Senate in a 59-35 vote, winning the support of 10 Republicans and every Democrat in attendance. It now heads to the White House, where President Joe Biden is expected to sign it into law.

The bill would create a special process to suspend the filibuster on a one-time basis and enable the Senate to lift the debt ceiling with a simple majority. That means it can be done quickly with only Democratic votes and a tiebreaker from Vice President Kamala Harris in the Senate.

The measure would also avert automatic cuts to Medicare that lawmakers largely agree should be avoided. It is the product of negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that satisfies demands from both parties by creating a complicated process to perform the simple task of lifting the debt ceiling.

McConnell gets to minimize the GOP fingerprint on a debt limit increase, which Republicans are hoping to weaponize in the 2022 election, as the process would force Democrats to raise it to a dollar amount, rather than suspend it to a particular date.

And Democrats were able to avoid using the budget reconciliation process to do it on a purely partisan basis, which they said would be arduous. Instead, they can now argue the GOP assisted with the process.

The 10 Republican senators who joined Democrats in Thursday's vote were: John Barrasso, of Wyoming; Roy Blunt, of Missouri; Shelley Moore Capito, of West Virginia; Susan Collins, of Maine; Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska; Rob Portman, of Ohio; Mitt Romney, of Utah; John Thune, of South Dakota; Thom Tillis, of North Carolina; and McConnell.

Murkowski said the process is “not ideal” but “it's the right thing to do.”

“Because the last thing in the world this country needs is a default. And so we've set up a process to avoid default,” Murkowski told reporters.

Democrats are discussing a debt ceiling hike somewhere between $2 trillion and $3 trillion, with the goal of extending it through the 2022 midterms, two sources told NBC News.

The Treasury Department has set a Dec. 15 deadline to extend the country's borrowing authority, warning of catastrophic economic consequences if Congress fails to act in time.

A debt ceiling increase does not add to the national debt. It enables Congress to pay bills it has accrued and meet obligations for red ink created by both parties over decades.

Earlier on Thursday, the Senate voted 64-36 to break a filibuster and advance the bill, with 14 Republicans joining all Democrats.

Some Republicans were skeptical that the Schumer-McConnell deal could come back to haunt them.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said that suspending the filibuster in this manner would create "disturbing precedent" as it "opens the door for Democrats to try to do that in the future" on progressive priorities.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said Democrats should create more exemptions on issues like voting rights legislation, although further exemptions would again require 60 votes to create in the same way.

"This is an exception to the filibuster. And the Republicans have just signed on. It's proof that it's possible to create exceptions to the filibuster and move forward when it's important," Warren said. "Do it once, let's do it twice."