The Senate began voting Thursday evening on the debt ceiling bill that passed the House a day earlier, with the US creeping closer to the 5 June deadline to avert a potentially disastrous federal default.
Senators held a series of votes on amendments to the debt ceiling bill, all of which were expected to fail. Once that vote series is complete, the Senate will then move on to the final passage of the bill.
The Senate majority leader, the New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, vowed that the upper chamber would “stay in session until we send a bill avoiding default to President Biden’s desk”.
“We will keep working until the job is done,” Schumer said in a floor speech on Thursday morning. “Time is a luxury the Senate does not have if we want to prevent default.”
Schumer’s comments came one day after the House passed the debt ceiling bill in a resounding, bipartisan vote of 314 to 117. The bill – which was negotiated between Biden and the House Republican speaker, Kevin McCarthy of California – would suspend the government’s borrowing limit until January 2025, ensuring the issue will not resurface before the next presidential election.
As part of the negotiations over the bill, McCarthy successfully pushed for modest government spending cuts and changes to the work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Programs.
The Senate minority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, endorsed the bill, even as he acknowledged that lawmakers must take further action to tackle the federal government’s debt of more than $31tn.
“The Fiscal Responsibility Act avoids the catastrophic consequences of a default on our nation’s debt,” McConnell said. “The deal the House passed last night is a promising step toward fiscal sanity. But make no mistake: there is much more work to be done. The fight to reel in wasteful government spending is far from over.”
The cuts outlined in the debt ceiling bill were deemed insufficient by several Republican senators, who indicated they would oppose the legislation over their concerns that it does too little to rein in government spending. Those concerns were shared by many House Republicans, 71 of whom voted against the bill on Wednesday.
“It doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t do the basic things that it purports to do,” Senator Mike Lee, a Republican of Utah, told Fox News on Thursday morning. “In case after case, the cuts that it proposes won’t materialize.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican of South Carolina, warned that the bill does not sufficiently fund the Pentagon and he accused McCarthy of accepting a weak deal from Biden.
“To my House colleagues: I can’t believe you did this,” Graham said in a floor speech. “To the speaker: I know you got a tough job, I like you, but the party of Ronald Reagan is dying. Don’t tell me that a defense budget that’s $42bn below inflation fully funds the military.”
Schumer and McConnell attempted to allay the concerns of defense hawks such as Graham by entering a statement into the record reaffirming that America stands ready to “respond to ongoing and growing national security threats”.
“This debt ceiling deal does nothing to limit the Senate’s ability to appropriate emergency supplemental funds to ensure our military capabilities are sufficient to deter China, Russia and our other adversaries,” the joint statement read. “The Senate is not about to ignore our national needs, nor abandon our friends and allies who face urgent threats from America’s most dangerous adversaries.”
The Senate leaders released a second statement aimed at reassuring colleagues who expressed alarm over a provision that stipulates that an across-the-board spending cut will be enacted if Congress does not pass all 12 appropriations bills for fiscal year 2024. The measure was designed to incentivize lawmakers to pass a full budget, which has proven to be a difficult task in recent years, but lawmakers fear the policy will lead to more spending cuts.
“We share the concern of many of our colleagues about the potential impact of sequestration and we will work in a bipartisan, collaborative way to avoid this outcome,” Schumer and McConnell said. “The leaders look forward to bills being reported out of committee with strong bipartisan support.”
Senate Democrats also voiced criticism of certain provisions in the bill, including the expedited approval of the controversial Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline. Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat of Virginia, successfully pushed for a vote on an amendment to remove the pipeline provision from the underlying debt ceiling bill, but that measure was expected to fail alongside the 10 other proposed amendments.
Despite their personal concerns about the details of the bill, leading Senate Democrats predicted the legislation would ultimately pass and go to Biden’s desk. Biden has said he stands ready to sign the bill as soon as it is passed.
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