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It’s Tricky

This Parliamentary Maneuver Will Not Save Us From a Debt Ceiling Breach

The discharge petition has been floated as a Hail Mary to avoid default, but the current political conditions do not augur success.

Al Drago/Getty Images
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy departs the White House after the first day of budget negotiations with President Joe Biden.

After weeks of posturing, President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy met on Wednesday to discuss the debt limit. As the debt ceiling struggles of 2011 appear to be back with a vengeance—once again we have Democrats in the White House and in control of the Senate while Republicans hold the House of Representatives—the specter of default is looming, with potentially catastrophic economic side effects. There is time yet for all parties to come to a resolution. But although members may mull many options, there is no quick fix for raising the limit.

With few exceptions, both parties insist that they do not want a default, but the ideological gulf may be too great to bridge. To wit: Republicans say they won’t increase the debt limit without spending cuts in an effort to balance the budget, but Democrats will not accept cuts to social programs. (Let’s gently remind ourselves that increasing the debt limit does not authorize new spending or incur new debt but covers spending previously authorized by Congress.) McCarthy said on Sunday that cuts to Social Security and Medicare, which would be deeply unpopular, are “off the table”—but Democrats believe this pledge may crumble under pressure.

It’s unclear just what would be under the knife; proposals that would functionally cut the defense budget are anathema to hawks on both sides of the aisle. Without cuts to Social Security, Medicare, or defense spending, and without raising taxes, the rest of government spending would need to be cut by 85 percent to balance the budget, according to a recent analysis by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

In their conversation on Wednesday, Biden reiterated to McCarthy that he would not negotiate on the debt limit but would welcome a “separate discussion with congressional leaders about how to reduce the deficit and control the national debt while continuing to grow the economy,” according to the White House. McCarthy argued that Biden’s willingness to meet with him showed that he was open to negotiating, and told reporters afterward that “we will continue this conversation.”

Despite the relatively conciliatory tone struck by McCarthy and Biden, the two parties are far from an agreement on the debt ceiling. It’s hard to see how House Republicans could agree to the “clean” debt ceiling increase that Democrats are seeking without any spending cuts attached—indeed, McCarthy reiterated to reporters on Thursday that “we will never pass a clean debt ceiling without some sort of spending cuts.”

As Congress often prefers to bank on a Hail Mary pass than undertake the long game of actual compromise, some have floated the idea of circumventing House leadership altogether. Schoolhouse Rock hasn’t prepared you for this one: In theory, just five moderate Republicans could team up with all 213 House Democrats to bring a bill lifting the debt ceiling to the floor using a discharge petition.

But there are a couple of problems with this strategy, the first being that bringing a discharge petition to the House floor is a long and arduous process. The legislation must first sit in committee for 30 legislative days, and then sit on the House calendar for seven legislative days, before it can be considered. The key phrase here is “legislative days,” which indicate when the House is in session; in the month of February, for example, there are only eight legislative days. Assuming that a crew of moderate Republicans and House Democrats reached a deal on the debt ceiling on Friday—which they won’t—37 legislative days from February 3 won’t pass until late May.

Thanks to the “extraordinary measures” the Treasury Department has employed to keep the country from defaulting on its debts, the United States is not expected to hit its borrowing cap until sometime this summer. But with such a lengthy process, that would require a tight turnaround for reaching a deal. There also just happens to be another chamber in Congress that would need to sign off on any agreement, with support from all Democrats and nine Republicans needed to meet the 60-vote threshold to avert a filibuster in the Senate. The Senate would need to pass the House bill without changes—otherwise it would go back to the House, and then be under the control of the speaker. As Josh Huder of the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University so colorfully put it, using a discharge petition to raise the debt limit “would be like trying to win a Formula One race in a semitruck.”

Beyond the cumbersome process, a discharge petition is unlikely to be used because, like McCarthy, moderate Republicans also want spending cuts to be attached to a debt limit increase and are thus unlikely to agree to an end run around him. (I don’t know anything about football, to be honest, so I’m just winging my sports analogies over here.)

Representative Don Bacon, a moderate Republican from Nebraska, told me Thursday that he did not see the possibility of a discharge petition for a bill increasing the debt limit without spending cuts. “There has to be some reasonable, good-faith effort to negotiate by the president. And there’s got to be some reductions,” Bacon said. When I asked Bacon whether there was any situation where he could envision supporting a clean debt ceiling increase via a discharge petition, he replied, “No. The president’s got to negotiate.”

Previous efforts to utilize discharge petitions have been largely futile. There have been some success stories, such as the 2002 effort to pass campaign finance reform, legislation that was approved despite opposition from the then Republican speaker. Five years ago, in 2018, another discharge petition almost met with success: Republican Representatives Carlos Curbelo and Jeff Denham were just two votes short of reaching the threshold for a discharge petition on a suite of bills regarding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The situation was resolved when then-Speaker Paul Ryan allowed for votes on certain DACA bills, which subsequently failed miserably.

The potential lesson from 2018: Successfully maneuvering around the majority of your conference is difficult, and at the moment, moderate Republicans have little incentive to do so. Meanwhile, Democrats will keep warning against brinkmanship, a term Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has used at least five times in the past week. There’s still time for Congress to devise an agreement, led by negotiations between Biden and McCarthy. (Prospects for such a deal are uncertain, but that’s grist for another article.) But as of now, it seems unlikely that the intervening time will be used to prepare a discharge petition to avert default. It’s an attractive option, until one considers the process involved; at that point, lawmakers may want to skip right over a discharge petition as a plan B.