McConnell says he’ll allow short-term extension of debt limit

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is offering Democrats a way to raise the debt limit briefly and keep the nation from tipping into default in the short term.

Though he’s led Republicans in filibustering or blocking Democrats from passing an extension of the debt limit under regular Senate procedure so far, now McConnell says he’ll allow them to pass an emergency extension of the debt limit without threat of a filibuster. To overcome a filibuster, Democrats needed 60 votes, and there are only 50 Democrats in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has not yet responded to McConnell’s offer.

Democrats and Republicans have been in standoff for weeks over addressing the debt limit, and McConnell’s reversal comes as the U.S. was faced with the dire possibility that in less than two weeks, it would no longer be able to pay its bills.  

In a statement, McConnell said Republicans would “allow Democrats to use normal procedures to pass an emergency debt limit extension at a fixed dollar amount to cover current spending levels into December.” 

Until Wednesday, McConnell had been pressing Democrats to use the reconciliation process to address the debt limit and said Republicans would not enable them to move quickly to address the debt ceiling on their own. 

Democrats countered that reconciliation, used for budget legislation, is a complex process that could take too long to execute before the government runs out of borrowing authority.

“This will moot Democrats’ excuses about the time crunch they created and give the unified Democratic government more than enough time to pass standalone debt limit legislation through reconciliation,” McConnell said of his offer. “Alternatively, if Democrats abandon their efforts to ram through another historically reckless taxing and spending spree that will hurt families and help China, a more traditional bipartisan governing conversation could be possible.”

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned Congress in late September it needed to act by October 18 to address the debt limit or the government would be unable to pay its bills and would likely go into default for the first time. She called the consequences of default catastrophic and said that the mere act of delaying the process could lead to higher costs for Americans. 

On Wednesday, President Biden and Yellen met with business leaders at the White House who pushed for the debt ceiling to be addressed as quickly as possible, saying the uncertainty was already contributing to volatility in the markets.  JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon warned that a default could lead from a recession to “complete catastrophe for the global economy.”

President Biden and Democrats in recent days acknowledged Senate Republicans were not going to work with them to address the debt ceiling and implored them to “get out of the way” and let them address it alone. But Senate Republicans blocked several efforts by Democrats to raise the debt ceiling with just their own votes in a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes necessary to avoid a filibuster. 

McConnell’s offer Wednesday will give Democrats more time to figure out how to use the budget reconciliation process to raise the debt limit for a longer period of time. It will also give them the ability to try to finish work on the Build Back Better social safety net bill before turning to a long-term increase in the debt ceiling.

Nancy Cordes contributed to this report.