WASHINGTON – Even if Senate leaders reach a deal Wednesday to extend the debt limit, there’s no guarantee that a final vote would take place before the government’s borrowing authority ends Thursday.
Any senator who wants to slow down action on an accord has the ability to insist that the Senate follow rules that would add days to the process of approving it.
So far, no senator has stepped forward to make that threat, though Texas Republican Ted Cruz didn’t rule it out, telling reporters that he wants to see the details of any agreement.
“You could hypothetically be taking at least two days to get this done if someone wants to mount a serious filibuster,” Patrick Griffin, who teaches at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at Washington’s American University, said in a telephone interview.
It’s possible that the delay scenario would be avoided if the House sent to the Senate a rewritten version of H.J. Res. 59, a bill initially designed to keep the government running after Sept. 30 and defund the 2010 health-care law.
A vote on a new version of that bill was postponed Tuesday night when House Republican leaders determined that they couldn’t pass the legislation without relying heavily on Democratic support, according to a leadership aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss party matters.
Still, remember that bill number; it’s important.
Recycling the number means that the measure would be treated in the Senate as though it’s a tweak instead of a whole new piece of legislation. In that case, Senate rules provide fewer opportunities to filibuster, or stall action on a bill.
“When you’re running out of time, you want to cut out as many steps as possible,” Loren Duggan, Bloomberg Government’s director of legislative analysis, said in an interview. House Republicans would be helping the Democratic-led Senate if they revived the earlier bill, he said.
If the House passes a new version of the recycled bill, it would go to the front of the Senate’s legislative waiting list.
The measure would become privileged for consideration, meaning that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would have the option of calling a vote on making further changes without first asking for permission to proceed.
“Unlike a freshly introduced bill, there’s no need to get 60 votes to take up the legislation,” Duggan said. “Senate Democrats may still have to marshal 60 votes to get to a vote on passage, however.”
If a senator wants to drag things out, Reid would respond by moving to cut off debate, a process called cloture.
Limiting debate requires a cooling-off period; sticking to the rules means waiting two nights before a vote, and then 60 votes in the 100-member chamber is required.
After that, the rules permit as many as 30 hours of debate. A determined opponent could insist that all 30 hours expire before the next step in the process.
For a new bill, there could be an extra round of cloture filings and two-night waits.
That timetable can be hastened. When the Senate is in a hurry and everyone agrees that speed is important, it’s possible to avoid the cloture vote or the 30 hours of debate through a unanimous-consent agreement.
“There’s no shortcut unless there’s unanimous consent,” said Griffin, who has seen the process from both sides – as a top aide to two Senate Democratic leaders, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and as the White House director of legislative affairs under President Bill Clinton. “We’re in unprecedented circumstances here, and with the clock running.”
If the government runs out of borrowing authority on Oct. 17, it would start missing payments sometime between Oct. 22 and Oct. 31, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Whether lawmakers push their final action up against those dates depends on how the rules are employed or waived.
The longest-serving member in congressional history memorably described the importance of the rules in 1983, in a vintage quote confirmed Wednesday by his communications director, Christopher Schuler:
“I’ll let you write the substance,” said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., first elected to his seat in 1955. “You let me write the procedure, and I’ll screw you every time.”
– With assistance from Richard Rubin, Kathleen Hunter and Roxana Tiron in Washington.