US House votes for short-term debt ceiling fix, averting default

Final approval from the House will temporarily raise the government's borrowing limit to US$28.9 trillion (S$39.2 trillion). PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The Democratic-controlled US House of Representatives gave final approval on Tuesday (Oct 12) to legislation temporarily raising the government's borrowing limit to US$28.9 trillion (S$39.2 trillion), putting off the risk of default until early December.

Democrats, who narrowly control the House, maintained party discipline to pass the hard-fought, US$480 billion debt limit increase. The vote was along party lines, with every "yes" from Democrats and every "no" from Republicans.

President Joe Biden is expected to sign the measure into law before Oct 18, when the Treasury Department has estimated it would no longer be able to pay the nation's debts without congressional action.

House passage warded off concerns that the United States - the world's largest economy - would go into default for the first time, but the temporary extension set the stage for continued fighting between the parties.

"We have temporarily averted crisis ahead of next week's deadline, but come December, members of Congress will need to choose to put country before party and prevent default," said Democratic Representative Richard Neal, chairman of the House Ways and Means committee.

Republicans insist that Democrats should take sole responsibility for raising the debt limit because their party wants to spend trillions of dollars to expand social programmes and tackle climate change.

Democrats say the increased borrowing authority is needed largely to cover the cost of tax cuts and spending programs during former Republican President Donald Trump's administration, which congressional Republicans supported.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell wrote to Mr Biden last Friday that he would not work with Democrats on another debt limit increase. Mr McConnell was harshly criticised by Mr Trump, the Republican party's leader, after the Senate vote.

"I will not be a party to any future effort to mitigate the consequences of Democratic mismanagement," Mr McConnell wrote to Mr Biden, saying another vast spending bill would hurt Americans and help China.

Lawmakers also have only until Dec 3 to pass legislation to fund the government and prevent a shutdown.

More partisan fighting ahead

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters earlier on Tuesday she hoped there could be a bipartisan solution to the debt ceiling issue.

Ms Pelosi said a Democratic proposal to allow the Treasury Department to lift the debt ceiling, with Congress having the ability to overrule it "has merit". She also repeated that Democrats do not want to use a procedural maneuver called reconciliation to raise the ceiling.

Reconciliation would let Democrats raise the ceiling with 51 votes rather than the 60 required under the Senate's filibuster rule if Republicans will not cooperate.

The Senate's vote last week to raise the limit - which had been more routine before the current era of fierce partisanship - turned into a brawl. Republicans tried to link the measure to Mr Biden's goal of passing multitrillion-dollar legislation to bolster infrastructure and social services while fighting climate change.

Ms Pelosi said she is optimistic that Democrats can work out changes to reduce the cost of their social policy plans by Oct 31.

In another sign that compromise was possible, progressive Democrats told reporters that most of them wanted to keep all the proposed programmes in the multitrillion-dollar bill, while shortening the time period to cut its overall cost.

Mr Biden has suggested a cost range around US$2 trillion rather than the initial US$3.5 trillion target. Ms Pelosi said she would not bring legislation to the House floor if it cannot pass the Senate, where moderate Democrats Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema both say they cannot support a US$3.5 trillion cost.

The months-long fight over the debt limit is closely tied to the November 2022 congressional elections, when Republicans are trying to gain majorities in both the House and Senate.

Democratic lawmakers fear that a Republican boycott of future efforts to raise the debt ceiling will leave them exposed to political attack ads over the next year that accuse Democrats of fiscal malfeasance and disregard for the ballooning debt.

But Democrats in turn accuse Republicans of being willing to let the country default on its debts to score political points.

During the Trump administration, the debt limit was raised three times with the support of Democrats, despite their opposition to Republican initiatives that added to government debt like 2017 tax-cut legislation and Trump priorities like construction of a southwest border wall to keep out immigrants.

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