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Democrats are scrambling to find backup plans on the debt ceiling to boost their leverage. The Senat͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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May 3, 2023


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Steve Clemons
Steve Clemons

In this edition: Democrats are scrambling to find backup plans on the debt ceiling to boost their leverage, Joseph Zeballos-Roig and Kadia Goba report, but none of them are inspiring too much confidence at the moment. The Senate is considering a response to recent revelations about Justice Clarence Thomas’ financial relationship with a GOP megadonor, but as Morgan Chalfant reports, legislation on a judicial ethics code looks unlikely to pass. And could an overhaul of permitting rules around energy find a ride on a debt ceiling bill?

Benjy Sarlin

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White House: Vice President Harris and other administration officials plan to meet with CEOs of Google, Microsoft, OpenAI, and Anthropic to discuss artificial intelligence on Thursday. “We aim to have a frank discussion of the risks we each see in current and near-term AI development,” a White House invitation sent to the executives reads.

Senate: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. is “hopeful” she can return to Washington next week, according to notes that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer brought to a news conference yesterday that a photographer captured. A spokesperson for Feinstein, who is recovering from shingles, said she is making progress but that her team doesn’t “have a timeline yet for her return to Washington which is dependent on her medical team saying it is safe to travel.”

House: Republicans unveiled the text of H.R. 2, a sweeping border security and immigration bill that they’re expected to bring to the floor after the current recess. Semafor reported on some of the late hang ups around an E-Verify component of the bill.

Need to Know
A group of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border.
REUTERS/Paul Ratje

The Biden administration is sending 1,500 active-duty military personnel to the southern border to help with an expected influx of migrants when Title 42 lifts later this month. Some Democrats criticized the move on Tuesday, with New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez accusing the White House of militarizing the border and catering “to the Republican Party’s xenophobic attacks on our asylum system.” The White House emphasized that the troops would only provide the Border Patrol with logistics support, and would not act as law enforcement or interact with migrants.

A friend of E. Jean Carroll testified about a phone call she received from the writer minutes after Donald Trump allegedly raped her in the mid 1990s. “I want the world to know that she is telling the truth,” the friend, Lisa Birnbach, told the jury Tuesday in the civil rape and defamation trial against the former president. Trump, who has denied he raped Carroll, is not planning to testify.

The House select committee on China sent letters to Adidas, Nike, and Chinese-owned platforms Shein and Temu asking them to answer questions about whether forced labor in Xinjiang has permeated their supply chains, Semafor’s Louise Matsakis reports.

“It’s not how white men fight.” That’s a key line from a text message ex-Fox News host Tucker Carlson sent to a producer the day after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol that alarmed Fox News executives and helped contribute to his firing, according to the New York Times. The lengthy message, in which Carlson describes his feelings while watching a video of Trump supporters beating up an “Antifa kid,” was produced in discovery in the Dominion Voting lawsuit.

Despite some renewed rockiness in the banking sector, the Federal Reserve is expected to announce one last interest rate hike today before pausing for a bit, potentially capping off one of the quickest efforts to tighten monetary policy in its history.

Morgan Chalfant and Jordan Weissmann

Beltway Newsletters

Punchbowl News: Senate Republicans are united in support of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to keep his distance from debt limit talks. McConnell has insisted that McCarthy and Biden need to drive the conversation. Punchbowl also reports that Schumer talked about his desire to move bipartisan legislation involving a wide-range of issues around China during the Senate lunch yesterday.

Playbook: Republicans think that Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va. and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz. might be able to force Democrats to the negotiating table on the debt limit.

Axios: Biden’s reelection campaign is off to a slower start compared to President Obama’s 2012 reelection effort. Axios reports that Biden’s campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez, who is currently serving in a senior role in the White House, won’t start on the job for two weeks.

Kadia Goba and Joseph Zeballos-Roig

Democrats scrounge for fallback plans as debt ceiling deadline looms

Alex Wong/Getty Images


With the debt ceiling deadline potentially looming less than a month away and President Biden preparing to meet with Congressional leaders, Democrats spent Tuesday rushing to prep backdoor options that could be used to address the borrowing limit in an emergency.

Here’s a rundown.


House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries announced in a “dear colleague” letter that Democrats were setting up a so-called discharge petition that could potentially be used to address the borrowing limit if just a handful of Republicans choose to go along. The tactic would allow a majority of House members to force a vote on a clean debt hike, end-running GOP leaders if they refuse to bring it to the floor.

Legislation has to sit in committee for at least 30 days before a discharge petition can move it to a vote. But Democrats revealed that they had quietly introduced a shell bill in January that could be used as a vehicle for the debt ceiling hike. In his letter on Tuesday, Jeffries said Democrats had filed a special rule that would bring the legislation to the floor once they gather 218 signatures, which they can start collecting on May 16.

“Democrats were prepared and began laying the procedural groundwork for this months ago — this is a responsible step that will keep all of our legislative options open,” a senior Democratic aide told Semafor.

But there are caveats. First, Democrats would still need five Republicans to go along. Second, procedurally, it’s unclear that the discharge petition could be used to hike the debt ceiling before a June 1 deadline when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned the U.S. could face default.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce released an analysis suggesting the procedure could force a vote in the House to pass a borrowing limit increase by June 8. Republicans on the House Rules Committee could also use certain procedural tactics to delay a vote until June 12 at the earliest, GOP and Democratic aides confirmed to Semafor.


Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer kickstarted steps to consider a fast-track process for the upper chamber to approve a two-year suspension of the debt limit with no strings attached. The bill would be allowed to skip the committee process and reach the floor without any hearings. But it would, of course, still need 60 votes.


White House aides have studied the option of simply declaring the borrowing limit unconstitutional under the 14th amendment, which says the government’s debt “shall not be questioned,” and continue paying the nation’s bills, two people familiar with the internal discussions confirmed (the story was first reported Tuesday by the New York Times). The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Though somewhat less discussed than the trillion-dollar coin, the idea has been floated for years. During another high-stakes fiscal showdown in 2011, former president Bill Clinton said he’d unilaterally invoke the 14th amendment to override the debt limit if it meant avoiding a calamitous default. At the time he said he’d do it “without hesitation, and force the courts to stop me.”

There are also concerns about the idea. One of the sources who spoke with Semafor said it would almost certainly spark a lawsuit, leaving the fate of the US economy in the hands of a conservative Supreme Court. Investors could also demand much higher interest rates in exchange for buying Treasury bonds that are considered legally dubious.


There’s reason to be skeptical of all the Democrats’ escape hatches, which are either time-consuming or legally perilous for Democrats to consider. Both routes through Congress would also require a number of moderate Republicans to cross GOP leadership, which so far they’ve had shown zero appetite for doing.


Still, Democratic leaders don’t appear ready to concede anything publicly.

“We have to stand firm,” Schumer said Tuesday at the weekly press conference. He insisted Republicans must raise the debt ceiling or risk economic chaos. The New York Democrat also refused to speculate on the possibility of a short-term debt limit increase that would leave more room for negotiations. “We should not kick the can down the road. I believe we should go with the full two-year extension,” he said.

Democrats are hoping they can pressure Republicans in swing districts by highlighting the effects of across-the-board discretionary spending cuts. “It would dismantle essential investments that middle class families depend upon, imposing an extreme 22 percent cut in just one year, locking in deep and growing cuts for ten years,” says a new strategy memo from the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Democrats have highlighted cuts to spending on veterans, in particular, which Republicans have said is unfair, as they haven’t specified where the reductions would come from.

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Supreme Court

Dems SCOTUS ethics push hits GOP buzzsaw

REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

Senate Democrats are running into a wall of Republican opposition in their effort to impose ethics rules on the Supreme Court, but they’re still planning to press forward with legislative efforts on multiple fronts.

The partisan divide was clear during a Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, as Democrats tried to make the case for imposing ethics rules on the justices in the wake of revelations about undisclosed trips and real estate deals involving Justice Clarence Thomas and a major GOP donor. Democrats want to require the justices adhere to ethics rules like those that apply to federal judges. Among the options being discussed is tying the requirements to appropriations legislation.

Republicans, meanwhile, accused their Democratic colleagues of trying to undermine the conservative-tilted court’s credibility for partisan gain — even as they conceded the justices could do more to address concerns raised by the disclosures.

“I think the court needs to up their game,” the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Semafor. “When you compare the Supreme Court to other branches of government … their rules can be improved upon.”

But new rules through legislation? No chance. “These bills really, I think, are too clever by half and I don’t see any legislation passing micromanaging the way the court deals with these ethical compliance requirements,” he said.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. also said during the hearing that the court “could update, refresh, and address the concerns” without need for any congressional action.

Democrats, meanwhile, are still settling on their approach. Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill. signaled during the hearing that he plans to press forward with legislation — “The status quo must change,” he said — but an aide declined to offer a timeline. The committee is unlikely to be able to advance anything until Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. returns to Washington after recovering from shingles given the partisan breakdown in the committee.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who has his own bill requiring the court to adopt and follow an ethics code, said the committee would need to hear from more witnesses before moving forward with any legislation.

“I think it’s premature to expect a vote on a bill or a markup on a bill in the very near future. It just isn’t that phase in the work yet,” he told Semafor.

Meanwhile, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is working on a separate proposal that would tie funding to an ethics code requirement for justices.

“All of us, or most of us, believe strongly that the Supreme Court should have to comply with the same ethics rules as the lower courts,” he told Semafor. “And so we’re exploring different ways through the appropriations process to do that. So, we’re actively exploring it. We don’t have any set proposal yet.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska may well be the only Republican who has an appetite for ethics reform legislation. Murkowski has a bill with Sen. Angus King, I-Maine that would require the Supreme Court to create its own code of conduct. With 60 votes needed to break a legislative filibuster, though, that would leave Democrats well short of passing anything.

Morgan Chalfant

One Good Text

Josh Freed leads the climate and energy program at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.


Stories that are being largely ignored by either left-leaning or right-leaning outlets, according to data from our partners at Ground News.

WHAT THE LEFT ISN’T READING: A new bill introduced by Senate Republicans would increase maximum prison time for people who try to influence a judge’s decision, citing demonstrations outside the homes of Supreme Court justices last year following the leaked Dobbs opinion.

WHAT THE RIGHT ISN’T READING: NPR says that Elon Musk is threatening to reassign the news organization’s Twitter account to another organization or person after they stopped posting on the site in response to Musk’s policy changes.

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— Steve Clemons