Manchin rejects filibuster change for bill on debt limit

By Jennifer Shutt, David Lerman and Niels Lesniewski

WASHINGTON — West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III on Wednesday ruled out any change to the Senate’s filibuster rules, dealing a blow to Democratic hopes of carving out an exemption to suspend the statutory debt limit with a simple majority vote.

Opposition from Manchin alone would be enough to prevent Democrats in the evenly divided Senate from mustering enough votes to change the filibuster rules, assuming all 50 Republicans oppose the move.

“I've been very, very clear where I stand … on the filibuster,” Manchin told reporters Wednesday. “I don't have to repeat that. I think I've been very clear. Nothing changes.”

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, another centrist Democrat, has also expressed concerns in the past about undermining the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to overcome.

Manchin, whose state voted for Republican President Donald Trump last year by a nearly 40-point margin, called on Senate leaders from both parties to work out a solution to the debt limit crisis.

The government will be unable to pay all its bills on time after Oct. 18 if the debt ceiling isn’t lifted by then, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has warned lawmakers.

Shortly after that date, Treasury would have to start prioritizing payments and eventually could have to withhold up to 40% of all financial obligations, which some economists say would lead to a spike in interest rates and spark a recession.

Manchin said it's incumbent on the top Senate Democrat and Republican, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to work something out.

“Our leadership has the responsibility to lead,” Manchin said. “And that's what I'm asking and imploring them to do.”

Cloture vote

The Senate was preparing to vote Wednesday on a procedural motion to advance a House-passed bill that would suspend the debt ceiling through next year. Democrats were hoping at least 10 Republicans would join them to allow the bill to proceed. While Republicans would then be free to vote against the bill, Democrats need bipartisan support to end the filibuster.

“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,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.

Republicans showed no signs of giving ground on their demand that Democrats use the budget reconciliation process to lift the debt ceiling on their own. While the votes of a few moderate Republicans remained unclear, there was little chance that Democrats would get 10 Republicans on their side.

As Democrats searched for a way out of the impasse, McConnell appeared to revel in the majority party’s struggle. “These are the leadership skills of people who spent 2 1/2 months doing nothing and then complain they’re short on time,” he said on the floor.

While McConnell has pushed Democrats to use the reconciliation process since July, Democrats have resisted, saying the process would be too cumbersome and time-consuming.

“The real point is at this stage reconciliation is an excruciating and unworkable alternative,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.

Under the complicated procedural rules of reconciliation, Democrats would likely need to increase the debt limit to a specified dollar amount, instead of suspending it for a certain period of time.

The stand-alone bill pending in the Senate, for example, would suspend the debt limit through Dec. 16, 2022. Raising the debt limit to a certain dollar amount is often considered a more politically unpalatable vote.

'Grave concerns'

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said there are “grave concerns” with citing a new, higher debt ceiling amount in the legislation. “I'd like to know what that dollar amount can be,” he said. “I know a lot of the Democrats don't want to do that at all."

Coons said that if the cloture vote is rejected Wednesday “it’s far more likely ... you'll have some real passion in my caucus for just eliminating the debt ceiling, or lifting it indefinitely.” He suggested there were 50 votes for that option but didn’t get into details.

Manchin has said a better option would be to use the reconciliation process. Republicans this week have said they could help Democrats speed that up so it doesn’t get all the way to the Oct. 18 deadline.

“I think there's a willingness on our side to negotiate a way to expedite [reconciliation] and get this done in a faster way,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said Wednesday. “I think we'll have more to report, probably at the end of the day.”

The Bipartisan Policy Center on Wednesday said it’s possible Treasury could start missing payments shortly after Oct. 19, though in a best-case scenario the department could make it until Nov. 2.

If Treasury were to exhaust accounting tricks and cash on hand on Oct. 19, the BPC offered a glimpse of what could be at stake, depending on how long the impasse lasts:

— Unemployment insurance benefits scheduled for Oct. 20 could be delayed by five days.

— Food stamp benefits due Oct. 25 would be delayed by a week.

— Federal employee salaries due to be paid Oct. 29 could be postponed by 11 days.

— Nov. 1 military paychecks, Medicare reimbursements and veterans benefits could be delayed to Nov. 19.

If they don’t use reconciliation, Democrats have few options.

Some have pointed to the 14th Amendment, which says the full faith and credit of the United States “shall not be questioned.” There has been discussion of using that amendment to argue that the president has executive authority to ignore the debt limit or suspend it on his own, although such a move would almost surely prompt a court challenge.

"I'm not saying the 14th Amendment itself is a solution,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “But what I'm saying is, since we've all pledged to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the 14th Amendment says the validity of public debt shall not be questioned, that tells me that I need to take action even if Republicans won’t."

When asked if the reconciliation process could be the next step, Kaine replied, “We’ll see.”

President Joe Biden was meeting Wednesday with a group of CEOs from corporations including JPMorgan Chase & Co., Intel Corp. and Raytheon Technologies, as well as trade groups AARP and the National Association of Realtors to discuss debt limit impacts on the economy.

Some suggested that after Wednesday’s cloture vote, Democrats could try again as it gets closer to the debt ceiling deadline to try to put the GOP on the spot, after another week or so of market gyrations and business community lobbying.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in advance of the vote that he’ll vote no and that it’s no surprise the measure is unlikely to advance. When asked if his position would be the same a week from Wednesday, Portman replied: “We need to avoid default.”

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