The Senate dodged a U.S. debt disaster Thursday night, voting to extend the government’s borrowing authority into December and temporarily avert an unprecedented federal default that experts warned would devastate the economy and harm millions of Americans.
The vote of 50-48 in support of the bill to raise the government's debt ceiling by nearly a half-trillion dollars brought instant relief in Washington and far beyond. However, it provides only a reprieve. Assuming the House goes along, which it will, Republican and Democratic lawmakers will still have to tackle their deep differences on the issue once more before yearend.
That debate will take place as lawmakers also work to fund the federal government for the new fiscal year and as they keep up their bitter battling over President Joe Biden’s top domestic priorities - a bipartisan infrastructure plan with nearly $550 billion in new spending as well as a much more expansive, $3.5 trillion effort focused on health, safety net programs, and the environment.
Easing the crisis at hand - a disastrous default looming in just weeks - the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, offered his support for a short-term extension of the government’s borrowing authority after leading solid GOP opposition to a longer extension. He acted as Biden and business leaders ramped up their concerns that a default would disrupt government payments to millions of Americans and throw the nation into recession.
The GOP concession was not popular with some members of McConnell's Republican caucus, who complained that the nation's debt levels are unsustainable.
“I can't vote to raise this debt ceiling, not right now, especially given the plans at play to increase spending immediately by another $3.5 trillion," Sen. Mike Lee of Utah shortly before the vote.
And Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said the Democrats had been on “a path to surrender” on the process used to lift the debt cap, “and then, unfortunately, yesterday, Republicans blinked.”
But Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was among those voting to advance the bill.
“I’m not willing to let this train go off the cliff,” she said.
Eleven Republicans voted to end the debate, providing the threshold needed to move the bill to a final vote. However, no Republicans sided with Democrats in the final vote for the measure. McConnell has insisted that the majority party will have to increase the debt ceiling on its own.
Congress has just days to act before the Oct. 18 deadline after which the Treasury Department has warned it will quickly run short of funds to handle the nation’s already accrued debt load.
For now, Democrats are still working out their deep divisions on the president's social spending plan.
The House is likely to return to approve the measure next week.