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Semafor LogoJoseph Zeballos-Roig
Joseph Zeballos-Roig
politicsNorth America

Don't count on this buzzy procedural trick to raise the debt ceiling

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Title iconThe News
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With conservative Republicans vowing a showdown over the debt ceiling later this year, at least one moderate GOP lawmaker says they’re willing to buck their party and cut a deal with Democrats if it’s necessary to avoid a potentially catastrophic breach of the government’s borrowing limit.

And they think they have a way to do it: A rarely-used procedure called a “discharge petition” that can force a vote on bills that have majority support in the House even if leaders refuse to bring them to the floor.

“It’s one of many options,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., who said he’s working with Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J. on a plan, told Semafor on Tuesday. “We cannot allow ourselves to default.”

Outside of Washington, some big names on Wall Street, like investment firm PIMCO, are also expressing optimism that a discharge petition backed by more centrist Republicans will ultimately defuse a debt crisis.

It’s a tactic with some history of success. Discharge petitions were used to put pressure on the House to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and to force a successful vote on the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970. More recently, a discharge petition was used to revive the Export-Import Bank in 2015.

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The discharge petition may be ill-suited to raise the debt ceiling, which carries a hard deadline before causing economic calamity. The process for forcing a vote is clunky and time-consuming and some experts believe House leadership could throw up additional roadblocks along the way.

“It's kind of like trying to do open heart surgery with an ax,” Josh Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, told Semafor. “It's just a very blunt instrument that's unwieldy and will take a lot of time to accomplish what you're trying to do.”

The steps to get to a vote are laborious:

  • The bill must first sit in committee for 30 days
  • Supporters have to gather 218 signatures
  • The measure must sit in the discharge calendar for 7 days
  • The Speaker then sets a time for the vote within 2 legislative days after a petitioner says they intend to bring up the motion

Complicated budget negotiations typically go to the last minute. So while a discharge petition might be able to get a bill past an unwilling speaker or a conservative-stacked Rules Committee that could otherwise halt it, the journey would require more time than they’re likely to have. And that assumes the Senate has the votes to follow through as well.

Even a brief default on Treasury debt could be an economic disaster, sending the markets into a panic while making it more expensive for Washington to borrow in the future as investors question the dependability of U.S. bonds.

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“I would certainly not bet the faith and credit of the United States on that as plan A,” Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., the ranking member of the House Budget panel, told Semafor. He predicted the whole process “from beginning to end will take at least four months.”

Still, a discharge petition could potentially play some role in talks with enough foresight and coordination.

One option Democrats are likely to pursue is submitting “clean” bills early in the debate to raise the debt ceiling temporarily, or by a set amount, as a failsafe option.

Having a clean debt limit bill on deck could give moderate Republicans a way to pressure either side to reach a deal.

In this scenario, some Republican members might initially support their side in budget talks — but warn conservatives that they planned to join the petition if they determined the caucus was no longer working toward a realistic agreement or were keeping proposals with bipartisan backing from the floor.

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If just five Republicans followed through on their threat and joined all Democrats, that would then get the petition to 218 signatures, enough to trigger a vote.

Conservatives, for their part, don’t seem too worried about an end-run around them. “It's a bigger lift than you think on those things,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, one of the Republicans who initially resisted McCarthy, told Semafor.

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

At The Intercept, Ryan Grim reports that some progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. are bullish on using discharge petitions on a variety of issues — the debt ceiling, abortion rights, immigration, and anti-monopoly legislation.

Republicans thinking about signing onto the procedure would face enormous political pressure from their party to fall in line. But then again, so did the holdouts in the speaker’s race, who bucked a century-long trend of quietly supporting their party leader. It’s possible discharge petitions are the natural response.

Title iconNotable

Dan Nowicki at The Arizona Republic recounts how a discharge petition helped pass bipartisan campaign finance reform in 2002 over the objections of Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.

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