The Senate late Thursday night passed a bipartisan bill to suspend the debt ceiling and curb federal spending, sending the legislation to President Biden to sign into law in time to avert an unprecedented U.S. government default.
The deal cleared the House on Wednesday night and is now on track to take effect by Monday, when the government would no longer be able to pay all of its bills without borrowing more money. The Senate vote of 63-36 capped off weeks of talks that moved in fits and starts—and at times dissolved altogether.
Indiana’s senators, both Republicans, disagreed on the legislation, with Sen. Mike Braun voting against it and Sen. Todd Young voting for it.
Braun said he voted against the bill because the “deal makes our current bloated spending levels the new baseline going forward, setting us further down the path to financial ruin. We need deep spending cuts, and Congress shouldn’t get paid until we deliver a real budget that seriously addresses our massive debt.”
Young said the bill “does not go as far as I and many others would like,” but called it “a compromise that should be just an initial step toward addressing our nation’s fiscal challenges.”
Senators scrambled to vote before the weekend, even as a handful of frustrated lawmakers pushed for votes on amendments that risked slowing the process.
None of the amendments were adopted. But in an effort to alleviate concerns from defense hawks that the debt ceiling bill would restrict Pentagon spending too much, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued a joint statement saying the “debt ceiling deal does nothing to limit the Senate’s ability to appropriate emergency supplemental funds to ensure our military capabilities are sufficient to deter China, Russia, and our other adversaries.”
As the June 5 default deadline ticked closer, negotiators from the White House and the House GOP clashed over government spending, work requirements for federal programs and a slew of other policy differences. The final 99-page bill lost some support from far-right lawmakers and some liberal Democrats. But its final passage marked an end to months of partisan squabbles over raising the debt ceiling—and averted economic catastrophe.
“Our work is far from finished, but this agreement is a critical step forward, and a reminder of what’s possible when we act in the best interests of our country,” President Biden said in a statement after the vote. “I look forward to signing this bill into law as soon as possible and addressing the American people directly tomorrow.”
In the Senate, four Democrats and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) voted no, while 44 Democrats and Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with them, and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) voted yes. On the GOP side, 17 Republicans voted yes, and 31 voted no. The bill needed 60 votes to pass.
“Democrats are feeling very good tonight,” Schumer said after the vote. “We’ve saved the country from the scourge of default. Even though there were some on the other side who wanted default, who wanted to lead us to default.”
In a statement after the vote, McConnell credited House Republicans’ efforts for avoiding a default and curbing “Washington Democrats’ addiction to reckless spending that grows our nation’s debt.”
The Senate was largely sidelined during the negotiations—a dynamic that senators made clear to reporters and in floor speeches on Thursday. But the chamber moved quickly to approve the legislation after an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in the House on Wednesday night. Senate leaders set the threshold for any amendments high enough that none of them were adopted, allowing lawmakers disgruntled with the deal to air their concerns without derailing the bill.
The Senate voted on a total of 11 amendments, 10 from Republicans and one from a Democrat, before approving the deal. Earlier in the day, some Republicans urged an increase in defense spending. Others, like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), pushed for deeper spending cuts. Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, called on Schumer to commit to bringing all 12 appropriations bills to the floor, in response to a provision in the deal that would set up additional automatic spending cuts if they aren’t passed. In a statement, Schumer and McConnell pledged to “seek and facilitate floor consideration of these bills.”
And Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) wanted to remove a provision that would fast-track a controversial pipeline that would carry natural gas across part of his state.
Even so, the Senate showed there was little appetite for changes that would require sending the legislation back to the House. Earlier on Thursday, Schumer said such a move “would almost guarantee default.” The Treasury Department has warned that the country would run out of money to meet all its payment obligations on June 5—Monday—without any legislation, and revisions to the bill probably would have meant it couldn’t pass until later next week.
By the time the vote on final passage came, Schumer had been exhorting his colleagues to vote faster and faster on each amendment, calling out the total time of each vote and cheering any that were finished in less than the 10 minutes allotted.
“America can breathe a sigh of relief, because in this process we have avoided default,” Schumer said in floor remarks before votes began Thursday night. “From the start, avoiding default has been our North Star.”
The deal approved Thursday night, which was struck days earlier by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (D-Calif.) and Biden, suspends the debt ceiling until January 2025. But the past few months have revived questions about whether Congress can avoid negotiating on the debt ceiling ever again. Democrats have repeatedly tried to repeal or rethink the debt ceiling, but they’ve encountered resistance each time. Compared with the rest of the world, only Denmark handles its debt ceiling anything like the U.S. government does. The vast majority of nations have no ceiling.
Meanwhile, Biden has said he might eventually seek to declare the nation’s borrowing limit incompatible with the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which says that the federal government’s debts must be paid, and try to get courts to back him.
But it remains to be seen whether anything changes over the next 18 months. Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and senior policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said the debt ceiling drama was yet another example of Capitol Hill “governing by crisis.” By the time 2025 rolls around, he said, it’s more than likely that negotiations will once again come down to the wire, resurfacing the question, “Why didn’t we do this sooner?”
“You have these opportunities to negotiate on it, and it feels like for the most part, policymakers won’t get serious until they’re up to the deadline,” Goldwein said. “That’s fine for a middle school student.”
In the House, many liberal Democrats opposed the bill, objecting to curbs on government spending and to new work requirements for some recipients of federal food stamps and family welfare benefits. Far-right Republicans also harshly criticized the agreement for not securing more aggressive spending cuts.
The final agreement does very little to balance the budget. The agreement cuts spending by $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis released Tuesday. The deficit reduction for 2024 is expected to be about $70 billion, in addition to $4.4 billion in deficit reduction for the rest of 2023. Zoomed out, those savings wouldn’t offset the country’s largest expenses, which include Social Security, Medicare and the military, which weren’t affected by the deal. Any side agreement to separately add money for the military might eat up some of those savings, too.
Even as party leaders acknowledged they didn’t get everything they wanted, the final bill passed with bipartisan support.
“I thought the bare number of Democrats needed would turn up, but that did not happen,” said Michael Strain, director of economic policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, referring to the House vote. “At the same time, McCarthy did it not just with a majority of the majority, but a supermajority of the majority—about two-thirds of Republican members. That’s also pretty impressive.”