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House Democrats plot longshot debt ceiling fix

A discharge petition needs the support of five Republicans


House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. speaking about the debt ceiling at the Capitol in Washington, on May 25 Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

House Democrats plot longshot debt ceiling fix

Last week, House Democrats began collecting signatures in support of a bill to help grandparents raising grandchildren, increase hurricane relief, and clarify tax policies for veterans. But the real purpose of the measure is to force lawmakers to vote on raising the U.S. debt ceiling.

The 213 Democrats in the House unanimously signed something called a discharge petition.

“A discharge motion is a way—it might be the only way—for a group of members to bring something to the floor over the objection of the majority party leadership,” said Jim Curry, director of graduate studies at the University of Utah and an expert on House procedure.

It’s a seldom-used parliamentary maneuver that forces a bill out of committee. Then, lawmakers can swap the contents of the bill to reveal their true purpose.

The procedure is a long shot, but it would only take the signatures of five Republicans for the petition to get majority support in the House. If successful, it could serve as an emergency valve to the country’s debt limit problem.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says the United States is out of funds and almost out of time. Having run up against its borrowing limit earlier this year, the country will soon have no way of making payments on the $31.4 trillion in debt it’s already accumulated. That could happen as early as June 1.

“If Congress fails to increase the debt limit, it would cause severe hardship to American families, harm our global leadership position, and raise questions about our ability to defend our national security interests,” Yellen wrote to congressional leadership in a letter published Monday.

To President Joe Biden and other Democratic leadership in congress, there’s an obvious solution: raise the debt ceiling, borrow more money, and keep the country’s economy out of harm’s way. But at the outset of his term, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy promised he wouldn’t let the country’s ballooning debt get any bigger—at least not without first creating a plan for how to deal with it in the future. House Republicans passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling and roll back federal discretionary spending to 2022 levels. House Democrats, who don’t want any spending conditions on a debt ceiling deal, are pushing their own bill with a discharge petition as a backup if House Republicans and the president fail to reach a deal.

For now, Republicans like U.S. Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, R-N.Y., remain squarely behind McCarthy.

“D’Esposito helped pass House Republicans’ Limit, Save, Grow Act plan to responsibly raise the debt ceiling, and continues to support Speaker McCarthy’s attempts to negotiate in good faith with President Biden as well as Senate Democrats on this issue. That is where we stand now,” D’Esposito’s office said in a statement to WORLD.

Discharge petitions have rarely succeeded in the past. The bill has to sit in committee for 30 days before the petition can start to receive signatures. To advance, the measure needs support from a majority of House members. Once it has enough signatures, the petition must sit for an extra seven legislative days. McCarthy would have two additional days to bring it to a vote. And finally, a majority would have to vote for the bill itself once it finally reaches the floor.

“There are all sorts of complications and machinations that would still have to happen to make this whole thing work,” Curry said.

Because of the strategy’s low chance of success, Curry sees the move as a messaging ploy by Democrats—a way to ramp up pressure in the short term, but also in the coming elections.

“If things go poorly … [Democrats] can go after the moderate Republicans, maybe a dozen of them, and say, ‘You could have signed a piece of paper and avoided all of this.’ So it’s a way you can campaign against them,” Curry said.


Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD reporter covering politics in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Patrick Henry College.


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