WASHINGTON -- Members of the U.S. House on Tuesday pushed through a short-term increase of the nation's debt limit, ensuring the federal government can continue fully paying its bills into December and temporarily averting an unprecedented default that many thought would have decimated the economy.
The $480 billion increase in the country's borrowing ceiling cleared the Senate last week on a party-line vote. The House approved it swiftly so President Joe Biden can sign it into law this week.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had warned that steps to stave off a default on the country's debts would be exhausted by Monday, and from that point, the department would soon be unable to fully meet the government's financial obligations.
A default would affect global financial markets built upon the bedrock safety of U.S. government debt. Routine government payments to Social Security beneficiaries, disabled veterans and active-duty military personnel would also have been called into question.
The relief will be temporary, though, forcing Congress to revisit the issue in December -- when lawmakers will also be working to complete federal spending bills and avoid a government shutdown.
"I'm glad that this at least allows us to prevent a totally self-made and utterly preventable economic catastrophe as we work on a longer-term plan," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
Republicans signaled that the next debt-limit debate won't be any easier and warned Democrats not to expect their help.
"Unless and until Democrats give up on their dream of a big-government, socialist America, Republicans cannot and will not support raising the debt limit and help them pave the superhighway to a great entitlement society," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
Procedurally, the House took a single vote Tuesday that had the effect of passing the Senate bill. The measure passed by a party-line vote of 219-206.
The present standoff over the debt ceiling eased when Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed to help pass the short-term increase. But he insists he won't do so again.
In a letter to Biden on Friday, McConnell said Democrats will have to handle the next debt-limit increase on their own using the same process they have tried to use to pass Biden's social spending and environment plan. That process, reconciliation, allows legislation to pass in the Senate with 51 votes rather than the 60 typically required. In the 50-50 Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris gives Democrats the majority with her tie-breaking vote.
Lawmakers from both parties have used the debt-ceiling votes as leverage for other priorities. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., threatened to vote against raising the debt ceiling when President Donald Trump was in office, saying she had no intention of supporting lifting the ceiling to enable Republicans to give another tax break to the rich. And Republicans in 2011 managed to persuade President Barack Obama to accept about $2 trillion in deficit cuts as a condition for increasing the debt limit -- though lawmakers later rolled back some of those cuts.
Pelosi told reporters Tuesday that over the years Republicans and Democrats have voted against lifting the debt ceiling, "but never to the extent of jeopardizing it."
Pelosi offered her hope that Congress would lift the ceiling in a bipartisan way in December because of the stakes involved. But she also floated a bill sponsored by Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., that would transfer the duty of raising the debt limit away from Congress and vest it with the Treasury secretary, saying, "I think it has merit."
In his focus on the debt limit, McConnell has tried to link Biden's big federal government spending boost with the nation's rising debt load, even though they are separate and the debt ceiling will have to be increased or suspended regardless of whether Biden's $3.5 trillion plan makes it into law.
"Your lieutenants on Capitol Hill now have the time they claimed they lacked to address the debt ceiling through standalone reconciliation, and all the tools to do it," McConnell said in his letter to the president. "They cannot invent another crisis and ask for my help."
McConnell was one of 11 Republicans who sided with Democrats to advance the debt ceiling reprieve to a final vote. Subsequently, he and his GOP colleagues voted against final passage.
McConnell last week suggested that Democrats were playing Russian roulette with the economy because they had not dealt with the debt ceiling through the process he had insisted upon. He called out Pelosi for traveling to Europe last week.
"I can only presume she hopes the full faith and credit of the United States will get sorted out," McConnell said.
Pelosi did not let the shot pass. "Russian roulette from Moscow Mitch. Interesting," she said.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Tuesday's vote marked the 50th time dating back to President Ronald Reagan that he has voted on extending the debt limit.
"Nobody has clean hands when it comes to the debt limit," he said.
Because the Senate bill allowed only for a stopgap extension, Hoyer called it a "lousy deal."
"And then we're going to play this game one more time, a despicable and irresponsible act for adults who know better," Hoyer said.
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said he wanted to thank Hoyer for sharing that he had previously voted for raising the debt ceiling 49 times.
"When he came into this body, the debt was about $1 trillion," Roy said. "Thank you, I guess, on behalf of the people of America who are staring at $28.5 trillion of debt."
Meanwhile, Pelosi on Tuesday sought to steel Democrats for cuts to their $3.5 trillion tax-and-spending package, stressing the process to whittle down the party's landmark proposal would not "diminish the transformative nature of what it is."
The renewed warning came as negotiations continued between Democratic lawmakers and the White House over the future of Biden's economic agenda. Appearing at her weekly news conference, Pelosi said negotiators have "important decisions to make in the next few days" if they hope to forge a legislative compromise that the fuller party, including its spending-weary centrists, ultimately can support.
"I'm very disappointed we're not going with the original $3.5 trillion," Pelosi told reporters. "But whatever we do, we will make decisions that will continue to be transformative."
The proposal that House Democrats unveiled in September aims to expand Medicare, combat climate change, improve education and offer a slew of new benefits to help families and children, with much of the spending financed through tax increases on corporations and the wealthy. But its price tag and policy scope are likely to be scaled back, since two of the party's moderates, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have said they would not support a bill as large as $3.5 trillion.
Their opposition has set off a frenzy of talks that increasingly have involved Biden, who has warned fellow Democrats in recent days that their package is likely to be less than $2.5 trillion. And it has hardened the resolve of the party's liberal-leaning lawmakers, who sought to make clear at their own news conference Tuesday that they are willing to make a deal on potential cuts, but only up to a point.
"Every poll I have seen indicates there is massive support for [the bill] and the provisions that are in it," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., later adding: "We are prepared to negotiate, we are prepared to compromise, but we are not going to negotiate with ourselves."
In a sign of a potentially widening interparty schism, top lawmakers in the Congressional Progressive Caucus on Tuesday said they remain steadfastly committed to the priorities they outlined in April to tackle issues including paid leave, climate change, housing, health care reform and immigration. The leader of the bloc, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said they would rather authorize those programs for fewer years rather than remove some from the final bill to save money.
"We're not going to pit child care against climate change," said Jayapal, outlining the difficulty lawmakers would face in deciding where to trim. "We're not going to pit seniors against young people."
Jayapal's comments came a day after Pelosi issued a letter to her caucus citing "guidance I am receiving" from other Democrats, who said the speaker should instead "do fewer things well so that we can still have a transformative impact on families." But Pelosi on Tuesday also said she believed lawmakers should first look to limit the duration of programs.
For weeks, Manchin and Sinema have offered little insight as to how they would like to reshape the broader spending measure, even as they have huddled privately with Biden. That has frustrated liberals, who have blasted their centrist counterparts for failing to be more forthright with a package they say is widely popular with voters. Democrats cannot afford to lose more than three votes in the House -- and cannot spare any in the Senate -- if they hope to deliver Biden a win.
On Tuesday, though, Pelosi projected a measure of optimism, even as she acknowledged to reporters the disagreements in her own ranks. "We are a Democratic Party. We are not a rubber stamp or a lockstep party," she said.
Speaking at a separate media event, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., stressed that many Democrats aren't willing to limit their plans to address climate change. "We can't negotiate with deadly wildfires," the senator said, responding to the talks between Congress and the White House.
Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., pledged to continue fighting to advance immigration changes, even though parliamentary obstacles in the chamber may spoil Democrats' efforts. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., emphasized that aid should be as universal as possible, part of an effort to ward off the eligibility requirements that Manchin and other centrists have raised to limit funds. And Sanders fiercely defended his proposal to expand Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing benefits amid growing concerns that it may be on the chopping block.
"This, to me, is not negotiable," he said.
Information for this article was contributed by Kevin Freking of The Associated Press; and by Tony Romm of The Washington Post.