The House passed a bill to suspend the debt ceiling on Wednesday, clearing a major legislative hurdle with just days left before the US is expected to default.
The final House vote was 314 to 117, with 149 Republicans and 165 Democrats supporting the measure. In a potentially worrisome sign for the House Republican speaker, Kevin McCarthy, 71 members of his conference opposed the deal that he brokered with President Joe Biden.
Taking a victory lap after the bill’s passage, McCarthy downplayed concerns over divisions within the House Republican conference and celebrated the policy concessions he secured in his negotiations with Biden.
“I have been thinking about this day before my vote for speaker because I knew the debt ceiling was coming. And I wanted to make history. I wanted to do something no other Congress has done,” McCarthy told reporters after the vote. “Tonight, we all made history.”
Biden applauded the House passage of the legislation, calling on the Senate to quickly take up the legislation to avoid a default. The treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, has warned that the federal government will be unable to pay its bills starting 5 June unless it was allowed to borrow more.
“This budget agreement is a bipartisan compromise. Neither side got everything it wanted,” Biden said in a statement. “I have been clear that the only path forward is a bipartisan compromise that can earn the support of both parties. This agreement meets that test.”
The debt ceiling bill passed by the House would suspend the government’s borrowing limit until January 2025, ensuring the issue will not resurface before the next presidential election. As part of his negotiations with Biden, McCarthy successfully pushed for government spending cuts and changes to the work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
However, the concessions that McCarthy won fell far short for members of the Freedom caucus, who had pushed for steeper spending cuts and much stricter work requirements for benefits programs. They belittled the debt ceiling compromise as a paltry effort to tackle the nation’s debt, which stands at more than $31tn.
Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, chair of the Freedom caucus, said on Twitter before the vote: “President Biden is happily sending Americans over yet another fiscal cliff, with far too many swampy Republicans behind the wheel of a ‘deal’ that fails miserably to address the real reason for our debt crisis: SPENDING.”
House Freedom caucus members staged one last attempt to block the debt ceiling bill from advancing on Wednesday afternoon, when they opposed a procedural motion prior to the final vote. With 29 Republicans voting against the motion, McCarthy had to rely on Democratic assistance to advance the debt ceiling proposal. In the end, 52 Democrats voted for the motion, setting up the final vote and virtually ensuring the bill’s passage.
The House Democratic leader, representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, mocked McCarthy’s failure to unify his party, arguing the procedural vote proved the speaker has “lost control of the floor”.
“It’s an extraordinary act that indicates just the nature of the extremism that is out of control on the other side of the aisle,” Jeffries said during the floor debate before the final vote. “Extreme Maga Republicans attempted to take control of the House floor. Democrats took it back for the American people.”
Despite his sharp criticism of McCarthy and his Republican colleagues, Jeffries and the majority of the House Democratic caucus supported the debt ceiling bill. Although they lamented the spending cuts included in the bill, those Democrats argued the crucial importance of avoiding a default outweighed their personal concerns about the legislation.
“Our constitution makes perfectly clear the validity of the public debt of the United States shall not be questioned,” said California representative Nancy Pelosi, the former Democratic House speaker. “While I find this legislation objectionable, it will avert an unprecedented default, which would bring devastation to America’s families.”
But dozens of progressive lawmakers opposed the bill, attacking the spending cuts and new work requirements procured by McCarthy as an affront to the voters who elected them.
“Republicans never cared about reducing the deficit, only about forcing through their anti-working family policy priorities under the threat of a catastrophic default,” said Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive caucus. “The deal they passed tonight proves that point, and I could not be part of their extortion scheme.”
Progressives in the Senate, including Senator Bernie Sanders, have echoed that criticism and indicated they plan to oppose the debt ceiling proposal, but the bill still appears likely to become law. The Senate Democratic majority leader, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, has pledged to act swiftly to take up the bill once it has passed the House. The Senate Republican minority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has already indicated he plans to support the proposal as well.
“Any needless delay, any last-minute brinksmanship at this point would be an unacceptable risk,” Schumer said in a floor speech Wednesday morning. “Moving quickly, working together to avoid default is the responsible and necessary thing to do.”
• The headline and article were amended on 1 June 2023. An earlier version said that the debt ceiling had been “raised” when it has been suspended.