​U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries

U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) speaks at the U.S. Capitol on April 28, 2023.

(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

House Dems Unveil Hail Mary Plan to Defuse GOP's Debt Ceiling 'Ticking Time Bomb'

"House Democrats are taking action to bring a clean bill raising the debt ceiling to the floor and end this game of high-stakes political chicken," said Democratic Rep. Jasmine Crockett.

House Democrats on Tuesday unveiled their closely held plan to force a vote on a debt ceiling hike "without extreme conditions," a remote bid to prevent the chamber's GOP majority from unleashing an unprecedented and severely damaging U.S. default.

Less than 24 hours after Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that the federal government may not be able to meet its financial obligations beyond June 1 unless Congress raises or suspends the nation's arbitrary borrowing limit before then, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) announced a so-called "discharge petition" effort to "avert the Republican-manufactured default crisis."

The rarely used gambit compels floor action on legislation backed by a majority of House lawmakers. Democrats are seeking to force a vote on a fresh bill to increase the debt ceiling over the objections of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who controls the floor and has demanded trillions of dollars in devastating spending cuts in exchange for the GOP votes needed to avoid a worldwide economic disaster.

As The Hill reported:

The discharge petition—an obscure mechanism empowering 218 lawmakers to pass bills the speaker refuses to consider—is almost never successful, because it requires members of the ruling party to defy their own leadership.

Democrats, with 213 members, would need to find five Republicans willing to sign on. And some Republicans are already warning that it'll never happen, especially after GOP leaders last week were successful in passing a debt ceiling package through the lower chamber.

"They're not going to get any Republicans," Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), head of the far-right Freedom Caucus, told the outlet. "We already passed our bill."

The so-called Limit, Save, Grow Act passed last week by House Republicans would raise the debt ceiling, but only in conjunction with measures to slash the nation's already tattered social safety net, weaken efforts to crack down on wealthy tax cheats, repeal clean energy investments, and more.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said the bill is "dead on arrival" in the upper chamber. President Joe Biden—who was vice president in 2011 when GOP lawmakers weaponized the debt ceiling to impose austerity and hurt the nation's credit score in the process—has also refused to entertain Republicans' plot to treat the global economy as a bargaining chip to advance attacks on programs that benefit working-class households.

According to The Hill: "Some moderate Republicans have already floated a willingness to join Democrats on a discharge petition if Congress inches too close to a federal default with no resolution in sight. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a co-chair of the centrist Problem Solvers Caucus, said earlier in the year that he might do so—'if that's necessary.'"

The challenge before House Democrats, in the words of Steven Harper, is to find "five rational Republicans willing to save the U.S. economy."

In a "Dear Colleague" letter sent to House Democrats on Tuesday, Jeffries wrote:

A dangerous default is not an option. Making sure that America pays its bills—and not the extreme ransom note demanded by Republicans—is the only responsible course of action. Since 1960, the debt ceiling has been extended or revised 78 separate times—49 under Republican administrations and 29 under Democratic presidents.

Most recently, under former President [Donald] Trump, Democrats voted three times to raise the debt ceiling without gamesmanship, brinksmanship, or partisanship. For the good of the country, extreme MAGA Republicans must do the same.

"House Democrats are working to make sure we have all options at our disposal to avoid a default," Jeffries added.

The newly revealed strategy was quietly hatched in January when Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) introduced "The Breaking the Gridlock Act" and kept confidential until now.

In the wake of Yellen's warning, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the top-ranked Democrat on the House Rules Committee, introduced a "special rule" on Tuesday, during a pro forma session held while the House was in recess.

"The next step in the process is filing a discharge petition, which will start the signature-gathering process," The Hill explained. "The petition, however, cannot be filed for seven legislative days after the special rule is introduced, meaning the earliest signatures can begin to be collected is on May 16."

According toThe New York Times, McGovern's "open-ended rule would provide a vehicle to bring Mr. DeSaulnier’s bill to the floor and amend it with a Democratic proposal—which has yet to be written—to resolve the debt limit crisis."

As the newspaper reported:

The strategy is no silver bullet, and Democrats concede it is a long shot. Gathering enough signatures to force a bill to the floor would take at least five Republicans willing to cross party lines if all Democrats signed on, a threshold that Democrats concede will be difficult to reach. They have yet to settle on the debt ceiling proposal itself, and for the strategy to succeed, Democrats would likely need to negotiate with a handful of mainstream Republicans to settle on a measure they could accept.

Still, Democrats argue that the prospect of a successful effort could force House Republicans into a more acceptable deal.

Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-Texas) described the discharge petition as "an extraordinary action to address the extraordinarily disastrous position Speaker McCarthy has put our country in."

"By using the debt ceiling as a ticking time bomb hanging over the heads of the American people," Crockett continued, "Republicans are threatening to send our country into a full recession if they don't get to check off every box on their extreme conservative wishlist."

"Republicans are treating this debt ceiling negotiation as a hostage situation—with the American people as the hostages," she added. "In response, House Democrats are taking action to bring a clean bill raising the debt ceiling to the floor and end this game of high-stakes political chicken."

According to the Times:

House Democratic leaders have for months played down the possibility of initiating a discharge petition as a way out of the stalemate. They are hesitant to budge from the party position, which Mr. Biden has articulated repeatedly, that Republicans should agree to raise the debt limit with no conditions or concessions on spending cuts.

But behind the scenes, they were simultaneously taking steps to make sure a vehicle was available if needed.

The discharge petition process can be time-consuming and complicated, so Democrats who devised the strategy started early and carefully crafted their legislative vehicle. Insiders privately refer to the measure as a "Swiss Army knife" bill—one that was intended to be referred to every single House committee in order to keep open as many opportunities as possible for forcing it to the floor.

The American Prospect's executive editor, David Dayen, warned on social media that "the timing of a discharge petition is such that this needed to start at the beginning of the Congressional session; probably too late now."

In the absence of congressional action, Yellen—who has supported proposals to permanently eliminate the federal government's borrowing cap as most countries around the world have done—still has the authority to avert an economic calamity by minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin.

On Monday, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich urged Biden to "play hardball by ignoring" the GOP. As legal experts have argued, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits "fiscal obstructionism," and even the right-wing-controlled U.S. Supreme Court, some observers predict, would likely support the Biden administration.

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