To avert a dangerous U.S. default, the House was heading toward approval of a debt ceiling and budget cuts package late Wednesday, as President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy assembled a bipartisan coalition of centrist Democrats and Republicans against fierce conservative blowback and progressive dissent.
The hard-fought deal pleased few, but lawmakers assessed it was better than the alternative, a devastating economic upheaval if Congress failed to act. Tensions rose when Republican support lagged on a procedural vote in the afternoon, but the package ultimately sailed ahead once Democrats unleashed their votes in a show of bipartisan support.
Debate was underway, and a final House roll call was expected by evening.
Earlier, Biden expressed optimism that the budget cutting agreement he negotiated with McCarthy to lift the nation's borrowing limit would pass the chamber and avoid an economically disastrous default on America's debts.
“Things are going as planned,” he told reporters. The president departed Washington Wednesday evening for Colorado, where he is scheduled to deliver the commencement address Thursday at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“God willing by the time I land, Congress will have acted, the House will have acted, and we’ll be one step closer,” he said.
Biden sent top White House officials to the Capitol to shore up backing. McCarthy worked to sell skeptical fellow Republicans, even fending off challenges to his leadership, in the rush to avert a potentially disastrous U.S. default.
“Everybody has a right to their own opinion, but on history, I’d want to be here with this bill today,” McCarthy, R-Calif., said as he arrived at the Capitol.
Despite deep disappointment from right-flank Republicans that the budget compromise falls short of the spending cuts they demanded, McCarthy insisted he would have the votes needed by the evening roll call.
He characterized the package as “just a small step” toward getting the U.S. debt load under control, and announced he would next be working to set up a bipartisan commission to more deeply address budget imbalances.
“Today, America is going to win,” he said.
Swift approval by the House and later in the week by the Senate would ensure government checks will continue to go out to Social Security recipients, veterans and others and would prevent financial upheaval at home and abroad. Next Monday is when the Treasury has said the U.S. would run short of money to pay its debts.
The package leaves hardly any lawmakers fully satisfied, but Biden and McCarthy were counting on support from the political center, a rarity in divided Washington, testing the leadership of the Democratic president and the Republican speaker.
Overall, the 99-page bill restricts spending for the next two years, suspends the debt ceiling into January 2025 and changes some policies, including imposing new work requirements for older Americans receiving food aid and greenlighting an Appalachian natural gas line that many Democrats oppose. It bolsters funds for defense and veterans.
Raising the nation's debt limit, now $31 trillion, ensures Treasury can borrow to pay already incurred U.S. debts.
For weeks negotiators labored late into the night to strike the deal, and for days McCarthy has worked to build support among skeptics. At one point, aides wheeled in pizza at the Capitol the night before the vote as he walked Republicans through the details, fielded questions and encouraged them not to lose sight of the bill’s budget savings.
The speaker has faced a sometimes tough crowd. Cheered on by conservative senators and outside groups, the hard-right House Freedom Caucus lambasted the compromise as falling well short of the needed spending cuts, and they vowed to try to halt passage.
A much larger conservative faction, the Republican Study Committee, declined to take a position. Even rank-and-file centrist conservatives were unsure, leaving McCarthy searching for votes from his slim Republican majority.
Ominously, the conservatives warned of possibly trying to oust McCarthy over the compromise.
Biden spoke directly to lawmakers, making calls from the White House.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the spending restrictions in the package would reduce deficits by $1.5 trillion over the decade, a top goal for the Republicans trying to curb the debt load.
In a surprise that complicated Republicans' support, however, the CBO said their drive to impose work requirements on older Americans receiving food stamps would end up boosting spending by $2.1 billion over the time period. That's because the final deal exempts veterans and homeless people, expanding the food stamp rolls by 78,000 people monthly, the CBO said.
House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries said it was up to McCarthy to turn out at least 150 Republican votes, two-thirds of the majority, even as he assured reporters that Democrats would supply the rest to prevent a default. In the 435-member House, 218 votes are needed for passage.
As the tally faltered in the afternoon procedural vote, Jeffries stood silently and raised his green voting card, signaling that the Democrats would fill in the gap to ensure passage. They did, advancing the bill that 29 hard-right Republicans, many from the Freedom Caucus, refused to back.
“Once again, House Democrats to the rescue to avoid a dangerous default," said Jeffries, D-N.Y.
“What does that say about this extreme MAGA Republican majority?” he said about the party aligned with Donald Trump's ”Make America Great Again" political movement.
Liberal discontent, though, ran strong as Democrats also broke away, decrying the new work requirements for older Americans, those 50-54, in the food aid program.
Some Democrats were also incensed that the White House negotiated into the deal changes to the landmark National Environmental Policy Act and approval of the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline natural gas project. The energy development is important to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., but many others oppose it as unhelpful in fighting climate change.
On Wall Street, stock prices were down.
After the House finishes work, the bill will go to the Senate, where Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell are working for passage by week's end.
Schumer warned there is ”no room for error."
Senators, who have remained largely on the sidelines during much of the negotiations between the president and the House speaker, are insisting on amendments to reshape the package. But making any changes at this stage seemed unlikely with so little time to spare before Monday's deadline.
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