Democrats and Republicans remain locked in a stalemate over how to raise the nation’s debt limit ahead of a deadline later this month, but in a significant development Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly floated two potential options to avert a default.
The move marked a shift that opens the door to a potential path forward amid the ongoing partisan impasse, but it’s not yet clear if it will be enough to end the deadlock and whether a deal can be reached between the two parties.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the majority whip, told CNN earlier Wednesday that Democrats are “waiting to see it” when asked if his party would agree to McConnell’s offer.
Durbin also said it would be “unacceptable” if the deal requires that Democrats still use the budget reconciliation process later on, as Republicans have called on Democrats to do.
In a statement on Wednesday, McConnell said that Republicans have “already made it clear” that they would “assist in expediting” a process known as reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to raise the debt limit without GOP votes. Democrats have been generally opposed to that idea, however, calling it too unwieldy, time-consuming and risky.
In addition to that, McConnell said that Republicans “will also 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.”
As he left the Capitol Wednesday night, McConnell said talks are continuing to finalize language on a measure to extend the debt ceiling for two months.
“We’re trading paper, which you always do at this point,” he said when asked about the status of the talks.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a member of Democratic leadership, also said the proposal from McConnell is still being drafted into legislative language.
“At this point we have no language. There is an idea, there is a proposal, (but) there is no proposal in writing,” she said.
The Senate had been slated to take a procedural vote later in the afternoon on whether to advance a House-passed bill to suspend the nation’s debt limit until December 2022, and Republicans had been expected to block the measure. That vote has now been postponed amid discussions over whether a deal can be reached between the two parties.
Republicans say that Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress and the White House, should act alone without GOP votes using reconciliation. Democrats have been outraged over the GOP position, arguing that the debt limit is a shared bipartisan responsibility.
On Wednesday afternoon, several Democratic senators emerged from a caucus meeting saying that a short-term increase of the debt ceiling would help them finish the work on President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda without the threat of an economic collapse.
But they don’t want to use the budget reconciliation process because doing so would force them to go through at least one additional round of a “vote-a-rama” – a marathon series of votes that are often used to put senators in a difficult political spot. The budget process would also force Democrats to specify the amount they’d raise the debt limit by – rather than just suspending the debt limit.
And Democrats say they’re concerned about the precedent that would be set by raising the debt limit through this tedious process.
A postponed vote in the Senate
Wednesday’s planned vote would be an attempt to break a filibuster to end debate and proceed to a final vote on passage. It would need 60 votes to succeed and Democrats, who control 50 seats, would have to find at least 10 Republicans willing to vote in support, which is not expected to happen.
Last week, Senate Republicans blocked a bill to suspend the debt limit and avert a government shutdown from advancing. Later in the week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer made a unanimous consent request to set up a vote to suspend the debt limit with a simple majority threshold, but that was also blocked by Republicans.
Democrats are continuing to attempt to pressure Republicans to allow them to approve a debt limit increase by a simple majority vote without Republicans filibustering it. But there is no indication so far that the strategy will succeed.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer criticized Republicans for being “reckless” and urged them to “get out of the way” and allow Democrats to pass the House bill suspending the debt limit.
“Republican obstruction on the debt ceiling over the last few weeks has been reckless, it’s been irresponsible,” Schumer said in floor remarks Wednesday ahead of the vote. “But nonetheless today Republicans will have an opportunity to get exactly what they kept asking for. The first and easiest option is this: Republicans can simply get out of the way and we can agree to skip the filibuster vote so we can proceed to final passage of this bill.”
Republicans have argued that Democrats are wasting time on votes that have no chance to succeed given that they have made their position clear.
More on the debt ceiling
“Even now while the Democratic leader complains that he’s short on time, he continues to waste time with partisan stunts that are dead on arrival. He scheduled yet another vote this afternoon which he knows will fail,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in floor remarks on Wednesday ahead of the vote.
“The majority has known for three months that show votes like this would go nowhere,” McConnell added.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned lawmakers that the federal government will likely run out of cash by October 18 unless Congress raises the debt ceiling. But Congress might not even have that long.
That’s because October 18 is not a set-in-stone deadline. It’s more of a best guess estimate of when the money will run out, which makes it far harder to know exactly when Congress would need to act to avert potential financial catastrophe – and increases the odds that lawmakers could accidentally trigger a default by not acting soon enough.
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Wednesday.
CNN’s Morgan Rimmer and Matt Egan contributed to this report.