House Democrats on Tuesday announced a secret plan to break through the partisan logjam that’s dogging talks over the debt ceiling and threatening a government default.
The strategy, hatched in January and kept under wraps since then, is designed to force a vote on a debt limit hike even over the objections of Republican leaders, who control the floor and are demanding trillions of dollars in spending cuts as a condition of preventing a default — cuts President Biden has refused to consider.
On Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the Treasury Department warned such a lapse could occur as soon as June 1, Democratic leaders unveiled their stealthy plan — a long-shot gambit known as a discharge petition that forces floor action on legislation that’s backed by a majority of House lawmakers.
In a letter to fellow Democrats, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) outlined that strategy, revealing the legislative vehicle Democrats intend to use was introduced in January — very quietly and without any fanfare — by Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.). And on Tuesday, during a pro forma session of the House, Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.), the senior Democrat on the Rules Committee, introduced a “special rule” designed to guide that bill to the floor if the discharge petition is successful.
“A dangerous default is not an option,” Jeffries wrote. “Making sure that America pays its bills — and not the extreme ransom note demanded by Republicans — is the only responsible course of action.”
The news of the Democrats’ surprise strategy was first reported by The New York Times.
The discharge petition — an obscure mechanism empowering 218 lawmakers to pass bills the Speaker refuses to consider — is almost never successful because it requires members of the ruling party to defy their leadership.
Democrats, with 213 members, would need to find five Republicans willing to sign on. And some Republicans are already warning it’ll never happen, especially after GOP leaders last week were successful in passing a debt ceiling package through the lower chamber, which included $4.8 trillion in deficit reduction.
“They’re not going to get any Republicans,” said Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), the head of the far-right Freedom Caucus, said in a Tuesday phone interview. “We already passed our bill.”
Perry also accused Democratic leaders of stifling the wishes of moderate Democrats who privately want Biden to negotiate deficit-reduction strategies with GOP leaders.
“You don’t establish a lot of trust or a bipartisan framework by trying to threaten your way out of the situation you’ve created for yourself,” he said.
Still, some moderate Republicans have already floated a willingness to join Democrats on a discharge petition if Congress inches too close to a federal default with no resolution in sight. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a co-chairman of the centrist Problem Solvers Caucus, said earlier in the year that he might do so — “if that’s necessary.”
But on Tuesday, shortly after Jeffries revealed the long-shot Democratic plan, moderate Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) expressed opposition. The Nebraska Republican is a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, which endorsed a bipartisan debt ceiling framework last month that would suspend the debt limit through the end of the year and establish an outside commission to decrease deficit spending.
“We have a system of government that requires negotiations. Jeffries’ my way or the highway fails America, especially in divided government. We need grownups to come to the table and govern,” Bacon told The Hill in a text message.
The timing is crucial because the obscure rules governing a discharge petition require the underlying legislation to sit in committee for at least 30 legislative days before it can be brought to the floor. DeSaulnier’s bill, which was introduced Jan. 30, has already met that threshold.
“This was Democrats sort of having the foresight and preparation to anticipate that we might need a break-the-glass strategy here in case of emergency, and so that’s why we introduced that underlying bill,” a senior Democratic aide told The Hill.
The special rule will provide for the consideration of the DeSaulnier bill, the aide said, and it allows for the measure to be amended to insert language to address the debt ceiling.
The next step in the process is filing a discharge petition, which will start the signature-gathering process. The petition, however, cannot be filed for seven legislative days after the special rule is introduced, meaning the earliest signatures can begin to be collected is on May 16.
If the petition garners at least 218 signatures, a vote can be forced on the special rule.
Despite being in the planning stages for months, Democratic leaders have not revealed what specific debt limit language they intend to move with their discharge petition. Throughout the debate, however, Democrats have stuck behind Biden’s demand for a “clean” debt limit increase — one without attendant budget provisions — and whatever proposal they insert into DeSaulnier’s “shell” bill is expected to mirror that strategy.
Biden invited the top four Congressional leaders to meet at the White House next week to discuss the debt limit as the June 1 potential deadline inches closer. Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have accepted the invitation, making for a high-stakes meeting as both sides dig in their heels on how to raise the borrowing limit.
The bill being used as part of the Democrats’ procedural gambit is titled the “Breaking the Gridlock Act,” which DeSaulnier quietly introduced at the end of January. The measure, which stretches 45 pages, says it is meant “to advance commonsense policy provisions.” It was referred to all Congressional committees.
The legislation, however, was not solely introduced for a discharge petition to address the debt limit, the senior Democratic aide said. It could have been used to force a vote on measures pertaining to abortion or guns, for example.
Emily Brooks contributed. Updated at 4:25 p.m.