Senate fails to advance bill to fund government and suspend debt ceiling

The Senate on Monday failed to advance a bill to fund the government at current levels and suspend the debt ceiling, leaving open the possibilities of a government shutdown early Friday morning and a catastrophic U.S. default that could take place some time in October if Congress fails to act. 

A procedural vote on the bill, which needed 60 votes in the Senate to proceed, fell essentially along party lines, with all Republicans voting against the measure. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he changed his vote from “yes” to “no” for procedural reasons. The bill previously passed along party lines in the House. The bill’s failure is no surprise, since Republicans had said they would not vote to raise the debt ceiling, insisting Democrats and President Biden are spending too much, and they alone should act to raise the debt ceiling. The bill would have funded the government through December 3 and raised the debt limit through December 22. 

If Congress doesn’t pass funding by the end of September 30, the conclusion of the current fiscal year, large swaths of the government will stop operating. The last partial government shutdown took place under former President Trump from December 22, 2018, to January 25, 2019. 

The debt ceiling is how much money the federal government may borrow to meet its existing obligations. Without an agreement to suspend or raise the debt limit, the Treasury Department can’t keep paying the federal government’s bills. 

It is likely the Senate will have to deal with the debt limit through a process called reconciliation, which would enable Democrats alone to act to raise the debt ceiling, since they hold a majority of 50, plus one, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote. Most other legislation requires 60 votes to proceed in the Senate. 

The U.S. has never defaulted on its debt. Republicans argue the national debt, a burden on future generations, has grown far too high, while Democrats point out that on several occasions Democrats voted to raise the debt ceiling while a Republican was president. 

Ahead of the vote, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans “will support a clean continuing resolution that will prevent a government shutdown,” without raising the debt limit. McConnell said Democrats can raise the debt limit on their own. 

“There never had to be one ounce of drama to any of this. Any drama here is self-created by the Democrats,” the Kentucky Republican said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote, saying Senate Democrats have all the time and all the tools to do what they need to do.

The failure of the spending and debt ceiling bill comes the same week that Democrats are trying to iron out disagreements within their party over the president’s domestic agenda, which is split into two bills — a bill funding traditional infrastructure, including roads, bridges and rail, which has already passed in the Senate, and a massive spending bill to greatly expand social services and education. Progressives have threatened they won’t vote for the $1 trillion infrastructure bill until the other spending bill passes. At least two Democratic senators oppose the level of spending in the social spending bill, and their support is crucial to the passage of the measure. 

A vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill had initially been scheduled for Monday, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed it to Thursday.

Asked by a reporter what’s at stake for his presidency and agenda this week on Capitol Hill, Mr. Biden told reporters Monday, “Victory is what’s at stake.”

Mr. Biden, who met with key lawmakers at the White House last week to figure out how to pass his domestic agenda, said both bills need to pass

“Now, we’re at this stalemate at the moment, and we’re going to have to get these two pieces of legislation passed. Both need to be passed,” he said at the time.