House to vote on government funding, debt as GOP digs in

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House is expected to vote as soon as Tuesday on legislation to fund the government, provide federal disaster aid and suspend the government's debt limit, all but daring Republicans who say they will vote against it despite the risk of a fiscal crisis.

Democratic congressional leaders backed by the White House are pushing ahead as Congress rushes headlong into an all-too-familiar stalemate: The federal government faces a shutdown if funding stops at the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30. At the same time, the U.S. risks defaulting on its accumulated debt load if the borrowing limits are not waived or adjusted.

The temporary spending bill unveiled Tuesday would fund the government through Dec. 3. It includes $28.6 billion in disaster relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida and other extreme weather events, and $6.3 billion to support Afghanistan evacuees in the fallout from the end of the 20-year war. It would also extend the government's borrowing authority through the end of 2022.

“It is critical that Congress swiftly pass this legislation,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, in a statement. The vote was expected Tuesday afternoon.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he’s not about to help pay off past debts when President Joe Biden is about to pile on more with a “reckless” tax and spending package.

“Since Democrats decided to go it alone, they will not get Senate Republicans’ help with raising the debt limit. I’ve explained this clearly and consistently for over two months,” McConnell said Monday on the Senate floor.

The Treasury Department warned that it will soon run out of cash on hand, and have to rely on incoming receipts to pay its obligations, now at $28.4 trillion. That could force the Treasury to delay or miss payments, a devastating situation.

“Doing so would likely precipitate a historic financial crisis,” wrote Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in The Wall Street Journal.

Stocks on Wall Street closed sharply lower Monday, handing the S&P 500 index its biggest drop in four months as worries about heavily indebted Chinese real estate developers rippled across markets and investors have concerns that the U.S. Federal Reserve could signal that it’s planning to pull back some of the support measures it’s been giving markets and the economy.

Once a routine matter, raising the debt ceiling has become a political weapon of choice for Republicans in Washington ever since the 2011 arrival of tea party lawmakers who refused to allow it. At the time, they argued against more spending and the standoff triggered a fiscal crisis.

Echoing that strategy, McConnell is refusing to provide Republican votes, even though some GOP senators might have a tough time voting no.

The package being voted on is expected to keep most spending at its current levels on a stopgap basis through the end of the year and include supplemental funds for the aftermath of Hurricane Ida and other natural disasters, as well as money to help defray the evacuations from Afghanistan. Tacking on legislative language to allow more borrowing would cover the nation’s debt payments through 2022.

Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, whose state was battered by the hurricane and who is up for election next year, said he will likely vote for it if “the disaster relief portion is acceptable.” He added, “Because my people desperately need the help.”

When McConnell was in control of the Senate he relied on Democratic votes to help raise the debt ceiling during the past administration and the Democrats said they expect the same from him now. It typically takes 60 votes to advance bills in what's now a divided 50-50 Senate, meaning at least 10 GOP senators would be needed.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Democrats are negotiating among themselves over Biden's big $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” package as the price tag likely slips to win over skeptical centrist lawmakers who view it as too much.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi implored colleagues in a letter late Monday to move swiftly toward reconciling differences, ahead of deadlines to vote on the package. "This week, we must take decisive action on proceeding," Pelosi said.

Biden's big initiative touches almost all aspects of Americans' lives. It would impose tax hikes on corporations and wealthy Americans earning beyond $400,000 a year and plow that money back into federal programs for young and old. It would increase and expand government health, education and family support programs for households, children and seniors, and boost environmental infrastructure programs to fight climate change.

Biden’s plan aims to not just rebuild the country after the COVID-19 crisis and economic fallout, but begin to change longstanding federal spending patterns in ways that provide more services to more Americans, and attempt to level the growing income inequality that permeates the economy.

With Republicans opposed in lockstep to Biden's sweeping vision, Democrats have no votes to spare in the Senate, and just a few votes' margin in the House.

Pelosi has promised a Sept. 27 vote on a companion bill, a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill of public works projects that enjoys widespread support from both parties in the Senate, though House Republicans mostly oppose it.

Even though that bipartisan bill should be an easy legislative lift, it too faces a political obstacle course. Dozens of lawmakers in the Congressional Progressive Caucus are expected to vote against it if it comes ahead of the broader Biden package. But centrists won't vote for the broader package unless they are assured the bipartisan bill will also be included.

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