Senate passes debt ceiling bill, sending measure to Biden to avert default

Washington — The Senate on Thursday passed legislation to suspend the debt ceiling and limit federal spending, sending the bill to President Biden’s desk to avoid a U.S. government default that would have caused economic chaos. 

The Senate adopted the bill, known as the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023, by a bipartisan vote of 63 to 36. Both sides acknowledged that the deal negotiated by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Biden was far from perfect but necessary to avoid a disastrous default. 

“I look forward to signing this bill into law as soon as possible and addressing the American people directly tomorrow,” Mr. Biden said in a statement late Thursday night.  

Before the final passage, the Senate voted on 11 amendments to the bill, all of which failed. 

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the U.S. risked default as soon as June 5 if the debt ceiling was not lifted before then. 

Among the failed amendments was one from Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who sought to strike a provision in the bill that fast-tracks construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline to carry natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky offered an amendment with more dramatic spending cuts than those in the bill.

GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah proposed an amendment to remove a portion of the bill that allows the Office of Management and Budget to waive some restrictions on spending if doing so is needed “for the delivery of essential services.” 

The House passed the bill on Wednesday in an overwhelming bipartisan vote, despite opposition from some conservatives and progressives. In total, 149 Republicans and 165 Democrats supported the measure, while 71 Republicans and 46 Democrats opposed it. 

The fact that more Democrats backed the measure in the Republican-majority House earned McCarthy criticism from members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, who threatened to challenge his speakership. Most Republicans, however, praised his ability to get the bill through an unruly House. 

“I wanted to make history,” McCarthy said Wednesday after the final vote. “I wanted to do something no other Congress has done, that we would literally turn the ship and for the first time in quite some time, we’d spend less than we spent the year before. Tonight, we all made history.” 

The measure nearly failed on the way to the House floor. It advanced by just one vote out of the House Rules Committee on Tuesday with two conservatives voting against allowing it to move forward. Another vote in opposition would have doomed it, but Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, another conservative on the committee, helped push it through. 

On Wednesday, it appeared in danger of failing again when nearly 30 Republicans voted against a procedural measure that allowed the bill to move ahead to a final vote, but Democrats stepped in to provide the needed votes. 

The deal suspends the $31.4 trillion borrowing limit until January 2025, leaving the next fight over the debt ceiling for the next president and Congress. The deal keeps spending flat for 2024 and imposes limits for 2025. 

The legislation also officially ends a student loan repayment freeze that has been in place during the pandemic, imposes stricter work requirements for food stamps, claws back some funding from the IRS and unspent COVID relief funds, and speeds up new energy projects. 

It now heads to Mr. Biden’s desk for his signature. 

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