US Senate passes and sends Biden bill needed to raise $28.9tn federal debt limit

President expected to sign it and avert an unprecedented default

US Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer negotiated the deal to raise the federal government's $28.9 trillion debt limit with minority leader Mitch McConnell. AFP

The US Senate passed and sent to President Joe Biden the first of two bills needed to raise the federal government's $28.9 trillion debt limit and avert an unprecedented default.

The Senate voted 59-35 for the measure, with 10 Republicans, including minority leader Mitch McConnell, backing the bill, which allows an upcoming vote on raising the debt ceiling to pass the chamber with a simple majority. Mr McConnell said earlier this week he believed the procedure was in the best interests of the country because it avoids default.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives approved the legislation on Wednesday night by 222-212, with only one Republican backing it.

Mr Biden is expected to promptly sign the unusual procedural measure that paves the way for the second bill, which would actually increase government borrowing authority, to pass in coming days.

"I want to be clear, this is about paying debt accumulated by both parties. So I'm pleased we were able to facilitate a process with the supportive members from both parties that avoids needless and catastrophic default," the chamber's top Democrat, majority leader Chuck Schumer, said in a speech after the vote on the measure, which he had negotiated with Mr McConnell.

"This was a bipartisan process, and I hope there can be more and I want to thank Leader McConnell for working with us in good faith to get to this point," Mr Schumer said.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has urged Congress to raise the limit before next Wednesday and it now appears to be on track to achieve that.

Final votes on the second, debt-limit implementing bill are expected in the Senate and House by Tuesday.

Republicans have been manoeuvring for months to try to force Democrats to raise the debt limit on their own, seeking to link the move to Biden's proposed $1.75 trillion "Build Back Better" domestic spending bill.

Democrats note that the legislation is needed to finance substantial debt incurred during Donald Trump's administration, when Republicans willingly jacked up Washington's credit card bill by about $7.85 trillion, partly through sweeping tax cuts and spending to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

Still to come in the prolonged legislative battle is a disclosure of the actual dollar amount for the new cap on Treasury's borrowing, which is expected to cover Washington's expenses through the 2022 midterm elections that will determine control of Congress.

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is up for re-election in Alaska next year, told reporters that she voted earlier with 13 other Republicans to advance the first bill because "it was the right thing to do".

She added that at a time when Russia is amassing troops on its border with Ukraine, "we don't need to be sending signals anywhere in the world that we're not going to back the full faith and credit in the United States".

Some Republicans, including Senator Shelley Moore Capito, said they were backing the measure because it included provisions to avoid cuts otherwise set to take place next year in the Medicare health care programme for the elderly.

Quote
Democrats have been spending money on a partisan basis without input from Republicans. So they have the obligation to increase the debt ceiling at this point
Mike Rounds, Republican Senator

But Republican Senator Mike Rounds said he voted no because "they [Democrats] have been spending money on a partisan basis without input from Republicans. So they have the obligation to increase the debt ceiling at this point".

The break in the legislative deadlock came just two months after Congress agreed on a short-term lift to the debt ceiling, to avert an unprecedented default by the federal government on its obligations, which would have dire implications for the world economy.

In recent years, lawmakers have squirmed over raising the statutory limit on the country's growing debt, fearing voter backlash.

The emergence in 2010 of the conservative, small-government "Tea Party" movement increased the rancour in Congress over such legislation, even as lawmakers voted for tax cuts and spending increases that contribute to the debt.

Updated: December 10th 2021, 2:17 PM