Biden says Republican stonewalling on debt ceiling risks U.S. default

By Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan and Jarrett Renshaw

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden said on Monday the federal government could breach its $28.4 trillion debt limit in a historic default unless Republicans join Democrats in voting to raise it in the two next weeks.

Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have twice in recent weeks blocked action to raise the debt ceiling – saying they do want action but will not help. Republicans say Democrats can use a parliamentary maneuver known as budget reconciliation to act alone. Top Democrats have rejected that approach.

“Raising the debt limit comes down to paying what we already owe … not anything new,” Biden said at a White House news conference.

Asked if he could guarantee the United States won’t breach the debt limit, the president answered: “No I can’t. That’s up to Mitch McConnell.” He said he intended to speak with McConnell about the matter.

In a high-stakes standoff over parliamentary maneuvers. McConnell for months has been saying that Democrats should use a process called “budget reconciliation” to get around the Senate’s filibuster rule, which requires 60 of 100 members to agree to pass most legislation. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, has rejected that approach and Biden on Monday pleaded not to use the filibuster to block action.

“Just get out of the way,” Biden told Republicans. “If you don’t want to help save the country, get out of the way so you don’t destroy it.”

Late last month the U.S. House of Representatives passed and sent to the Senate a bill to suspend the limit on Treasury borrowing through the end of 2022.

Schumer on Monday said that later this week the Senate would vote for a third time on a measure to suspend the debt limit.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen last week warned lawmakers that the United States government was close to exhausting its federal borrowing capabilities by about Oct. 18.

Failure to act could have catastrophic economic consequences. Moody’s last month warned that it could cause a nearly 4% decline in economic activity, the loss of almost 6 million jobs, an unemployment rate of close to 9%, a sell-off in stocks that could wipe out $15 trillion in household wealth and a spike in interest rates on mortgages, consumer loans and business debts.

Democrats note that they voted to raise the debt limit during Republican Donald Trump’s administration even though they opposed deep tax cuts that added to the debt.

Biden said the United States racked up nearly $8 trillion in new debt over Trump’s four years in office, more than one quarter of the entire debt outstanding.

“Republicans in Congress raised the debt three times” under Trump, he said, with Democratic support.

STOCKS SLIDE

Concerns over the debt ceiling contributed to Monday’s drop in the stock market. Wall Street’s main indexes tumbled on Monday as investors shifted out of technology stocks in the face of rising Treasury yields, with concerns about U.S.-China trade, Taiwan and the debt ceiling in the forefront.

McConnell stuck to his guns in remarks to the Senate, and in an open letter to Biden on Monday.

“The majority needs to stop sleepwalking toward yet another preventable crisis. Democrats need to tackle the debt limit,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.

In a letter to Biden, McConnell said that the Democrats do not need Republican cooperation to pass a bill to raise the debt ceiling. Democrats have had nearly three months notice from Republicans about their position on the matter, McConnell wrote.

McConnell is known for standing his ground once he takes a controversial position. For example, in 2016 he refused to allow a Senate hearing on then-President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to a seat on the Supreme Court – holding the seat open until after Trump assumed office nearly a year later.

Schumer said the Senate will have to stay in session through the weekend and possibly into a planned recess next week if no progress is made on raising the debt limit.

Last week, the Senate’s parliamentarian ruled that Schumer could use the reconciliation process to bring a debt limit bill to the Senate floor, according to a source familiar with the ruling.

According to the parliamentarian, doing so would not jeopardize Democrats’ efforts to bring a second bill to the Senate floor under reconciliation. That is the multitrillion-dollar bill embracing Biden’s domestic agenda expanding social services and addressing climate change that Democrats are developing.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan and Jarrett Renshaw; additional reporting by David Morgan, Jeff Mason, Steve Holland, Diane Bartz and Eric Beech; Editing by Scott Malone, Mark Porter and Grant McCool)

Republicans see opportunity in U.S. debt-ceiling standoff

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a high-stakes standoff over the U.S. debt ceiling, congressional Republicans believe they see a chance to scale back President Joe Biden’s sweeping domestic agenda while boosting their odds of retaking Congress in 2022.

The Republican gambit passed an initial political test on Tuesday, when the House of Representatives voted 220-211 along party lines to approve a measure to suspend the $28.4 trillion debt ceiling and fund the federal government beyond Sept. 30, when the current fiscal year ends.

Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear that his caucus, which holds half the chamber’s 100 seats, will block it, seeking to frame the vote as a referendum on a $3.5 trillion Biden domestic spending package the House and Senate will take up in coming weeks.

The stakes are high. Failing to fund federal agencies past Sept. 30 could trigger the third partial government shutdown in a decade and a failure to suspend the debt ceiling by mid-October brings the risk of a historic default that could shake financial markets and even spark a recession.

Both McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have used the word “catastrophic” to describe the fallout from a default.

“America must never default. We never have and we never will,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday. “The debt ceiling will be raised, as it always should be. But it will be raised by the Democrats.”

Republicans, while insisting they want to avoid a crisis, could be relatively insulated from any threat of default.

“The American people will say, ‘I’m mad at everybody’,” Senator James Lankford told Reuters. “But I don’t know that it becomes the fault of the group that’s in the minority in the House, in the minority in the Senate and not in the White House.”

A Sept. 18-20 Morning Consult poll showed that 42% of registered voters would blame both parties equally for any default, with another 33% blaming Democrats but only 16% blaming Republicans.

McConnell and his fellow Republicans want Democrats to suspend the debt ceiling on their own through a parliamentary maneuver called reconciliation, which Democrats have already used to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill and intend to use again for Biden’s domestic spending plan.

Schumer denies that the debt-ceiling debate has anything to do with Biden’s agenda and has accused McConnell of “engaging in fantastical feats of sophistry.”

The Treasury Department will exhaust its borrowing authority sometime in October unless the debt limit is suspended. The Democratic bill would suspend the limit on government borrowing through December 2022.

DEMOCRATS DIVIDED

Moderate Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are objecting to the size of Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion package, while House progressives insist they will reject anything smaller. Republicans contend that forcing Democrats to own the debt-ceiling suspension could further undermine their unity and lead to a smaller package.

“There are a lot of moderate Democrats here in the Senate, and for that matter, in the House, who have concerns about the level of spending. It’s a stratospheric amount,” said Senator John Thune, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican.

Republicans also see the debate as a way to draw a bright ideological line between themselves and Democrats, who they claim are being led by self-declared socialists including Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“What’s at stake is not simply a temporary hitting of the debt ceiling or defaulting temporarily or anything like that. It’s really whether we’re going to sit back and let them embed socialism into the institutions of our government,” Senator Kevin Cramer told Reuters.

Some Republicans, who worry about being blamed for a failed vote, have suggested that they could give Democrats consent to pass the debt ceiling and funding measure on a simple majority. But Republican Senator Ted Cruz vowed to block that route.

Others said that their high-profile stand against the Biden agenda could help Republicans turn out the vote in the November 2022 election that will determine control of Congress.

“Anytime you’re having a fight over taxes and spending, it’s good for Republicans,” Thune, who is seeking reelection in South Dakota, told reporters when asked if the showdown could aid Republican candidates.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Mark Porter)

U.S. Treasury Secretary Yellen warns Congress on debt limit

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urged lawmakers on Friday to increase or suspend the nation’s debt limit as soon as possible and warned that if Congress does not act by Aug. 2, the Treasury Department will need to take “extraordinary measures” to prevent a U.S. default.

As a partisan fight over raising the debt ceiling erupted in Congress, Yellen told House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a letter that the outstanding debt of the United States will be at the statutory limit on Aug 1.

“Today, Treasury is announcing that it will suspend the sale of State and Local Government Series (SLGS) securities at 12:00 p.m. on July 30, 2021,” Yellen said in the letter, also sent to other congressional leaders from both parties.

The suspension will continue until the debt ceiling is suspended or raised, Yellen said.

“If Congress has not acted to suspend or increase the debt limit by Monday, August 2, 2021, Treasury will need to start taking certain additional extraordinary measures in order to prevent the United States from defaulting on its obligations,” Yellen added.

A failure to work out differences over whether government spending cuts should accompany an increase in the statutory debt limit, currently set at $28.5 trillion, could lead to a federal government shutdown – as has happened three times in the past decade – or even a debt default.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Editing by Franklin Paul and Will Dunham)

‘Every time, it’s messy:’ U.S. again approaching debt ceiling

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress will learn on Wednesday when the federal government will likely run out of money to pay its bills, setting the stage for the latest in a long series of fights over what is known as the debt ceiling.

A failure by Democrats and Republicans to work out differences over whether government spending cuts should accompany an increase in the statutory debt limit, currently set at $28.5 trillion, could lead to a shutdown of the federal government — something that has happened three times in the past decade.

“Every time, it’s messy,” said the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Mike Crapo, when asked about the process of adjusting the debt limit. He noted that in his nearly three decades in Congress he had pushed for spending cuts in those negotiations, adding in a brief interview that he would be seeking cuts again.

Neither Crapo nor other senior Republicans have brought up the threat of a shutdown in recent public statements, and Democrats insist on a “clean” debt limit increase unfettered by a fight over spending reductions.

But the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, warned on Wednesday that members of his party would be unlikely to support a hike to the debt limit, given the current Democratic drive for a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure investment bill.

“I can’t imagine there will be a single Republican voting to raise the debt ceiling after what we’ve been experiencing,” McConnell told the Congress-focused Punchbowl News. But rather than call for an outright battle, he suggested Democrats address the debt limit in a second spending measure they are expecting to pass without Republican votes in a maneuver called reconciliation.

On July 31, the Treasury Department technically bumps up against its statutory debt limit. Much like a personal credit card maximum, the debt ceiling is the amount of money the federal government is allowed to borrow to meet its obligations. These range from paying military salaries and IRS tax refunds to Social Security benefits and even interest payments on the debt.

Since the government spends more than it receives in revenues, it keeps operating by borrowing more and more.

If Congress does not raise the debt ceiling from its current $28.5 trillion by then, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is expected to take special steps to avoid a government default. Such stop-gap measures are effective for only a short period.

On Wednesday, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office is scheduled to release its latest estimate of when the government actually would be unable to pay its bills — known as the “X Date.”

Democrats are eyeing several possibilities for heading off debt payment problems, such as attaching a debt-ceiling increase to a bipartisan infrastructure bill being negotiated in the Senate or as part of a stop-gap funding bill in September to avoid government shutdowns on Oct. 1 with the start of the new fiscal year.

Failure could lead to a repeat of the government shutdowns seen in 2013, January 2018 and one that lasted from 35 days from late December 2018 into January 2019. Other factors also were in play during those disruptions.

In a sign of Wall Street’s worry about the approaching limits, yields on short-term U.S. Treasury debt have inched up to around 0.05%, after having hovered near zero since early in the pandemic.

‘IF YOU INCUR YOUR BILLS, YOU PAY THEM’

Cooperation from Republicans in passing a debt limit increase is essential given the 50-50 party split in the Senate, where most legislation requires 60 votes to advance.

“Nobody should be allowed to take our economy hostage, particularly when we are in a fragile period like this” with the United States clawing its way out of the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Senator Ron Wyden, the Democratic chairman of the Finance Committee that oversees the debt limit.

“If you incur bills, you pay them,” Wyden added.

The brewing battle over budget deficits and debt comes after Senate Republicans earlier this year adopted a party rule stating that any debt limit increase should be coupled with spending cuts.

It also is on the heels of Congress approving around $5.7 trillion in COVID-19-related relief measures since early 2020 and as Democrats push for over $4 trillion in infrastructure investments, amid an estimated $3 trillion budget deficit this year alone.

DEBT LIMIT ‘WEAPONIZED’

That sense of urgency rankled Democrats, since Republicans had little problem increasing the debt limit in 2018 and 2019 when a fellow Republican, Donald Trump, was president and after they enacted sweeping tax cuts skewed to the wealthy, which were projected to add $1.8 trillion to the nation’s debt.

“I think the debt limit became weaponized a while back and that created a huge problem,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Budget.

Nowhere was that more apparent than in 2011, when Republicans launched a battle over the debt limit and federal spending, which led to the first-ever Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the U.S. credit rating — a move that reverberated through global financial markets.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone and Cynthia Osterman)

Yellen says U.S. debt ceiling could pinch in summer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said on Friday the nation could exhaust its ability to borrow this summer even if Treasury takes “extraordinary actions” to buy more time when the nation’s debt ceiling comes back into effect at the end of July.

Yellen told reporters at the White House that while the Treasury could extend its ability to borrow by employing special measures if Congress did not act to raise the debt ceiling, those steps might buy only a “very limited” amount of time.

“It is exceptionally challenging this time to try to figure out just how long those (extraordinary) measures are going to last in part because of higher and more volatile spending and revenue numbers associated with the state of the economy and the pandemic,” she said.

“We are concerned that there are scenarios that give (a) very limited amount of additional time to use extraordinary measures,” Yellen added. “There are scenarios in which some time during the summer” room would run out even after special measures were employed, she said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Tim Ahmann; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Trump says U.S. debt ceiling ‘mess’ could have been avoided

U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he steps out from Air Force One in Reno, Nevada, U.S., August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Thursday congressional leaders could have avoided a legislative “mess” if they had heeded his advice on raising the U.S. debt ceiling, renewing criticism of fellow Republicans whose support he needs to advance his policy agenda.

Trump said he had advised Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan to link passage of legislation raising the debt ceiling to a measure on veterans affairs that he signed on Aug. 12.

“I requested that Mitch M & Paul R tie the Debt Ceiling legislation into the popular V.A. Bill (which just passed) for easy approval,” Trump said a in Twitter post.

“They … didn’t do it so now we have a big deal with Dems holding them up (as usual) on Debt Ceiling approval. Could have been so easy-now a mess!” he added, referring to Democrats.

The Treasury Department, already using “extraordinary measures” to remain current on its obligations, has said the limit on the amount the federal government may borrow must be raised by Sept. 29.

The issue is one of the must-pass measures Congress will take up when it returns on Sept. 5 from its August recess. Another is a spending bill: Congress will have about 12 working days from when it returns from the break to approve spending measures to keep the government open.

Trump threatened on Tuesday to shut down the government if Congress failed to secure funding for his long-promised wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. His threat, which added a new complication to Republicans’ months-long struggle to reach a budget deal, rattled markets and drew rebukes from some Republicans.

Democrats have slammed Trump over his comments.

On the debt ceiling issue, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday that with Republicans controlling the White House and both chambers in Congress, “the American people expect and deserve a plan from Republicans to avert a catastrophic default and ensure the full faith and credit of the United States.”

On Thursday, investors were more broadly waiting for speeches on Friday by central bank governors at a conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for any new indications on monetary policy. U.S. stocks opened higher but then turned negative, and U.S. Treasury yields edged higher.

Yields on Treasury bills due in early October rose on concerns that payments on the debt could be delayed if lawmakers fail to raise the debt ceiling before the government runs out of funds.

“There’s disjointedness because of the debt ceiling,” said Lou Brien, a market strategist at DRW Trading in Chicago.

RELATIONS WITH MCCONNELL

Trump’s renewed criticism of the Republican leaders came just a day after the White House and McConnell issued separate statements saying they were continuing to work together on shared priorities, seeking to counter news reports that their relationship is disintegrating.

Trump and McConnell “remain united on many shared priorities, including middle class tax relief, strengthening the military, constructing a southern border wall, and other important issues,” the White House said in its statement.

Trump also reiterated his criticism of McConnell on Thursday over the Senate’s failure in July to pass a bill to replace Democratic former President Barack Obama’s healthcare law, legislation opposed by Republicans since it was enacted in 2010.

“The only problem I have with Mitch McConnell is that, after hearing Repeal & Replace for 7 years, he failed!That should NEVER have happened!,” Trump said in a tweet.

McConnell offered muted criticism of Trump on Thursday, saying he was “a little concerned about some of the trade rhetoric” by the president and others.

Trump has repeatedly condemned trade deals he believes are bad for American workers and for the U.S. economy. On Tuesday he cast doubt on any deal emerging to improve the North America Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada. “We’ll end up probably terminating NAFTA at some point,” he said.

“Trade is a winner for America,” McConnell told a gathering of Kentucky farmers and lawmakers. “You may or may not know this, but of all the current free trade agreements that we have with the various countries all around the world, if you add them all up, we actually have a trade surplus.”

“The assumption that every free trade agreement is a loser for America is largely untrue,” McConnell said.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that McConnell and Trump were locked in a political “cold war,” especially after an Aug. 9 phone call it said devolved into a shouting match. On that day and the next, Trump assailed McConnell via Twitter, angered by a speech McConnell had given saying Trump had “excessive expectations” of Congress.

(Story refiles to delete duplicated phrase ‘which added’ in seventh paragraph.)

(Reporting by David Alexander, Makini Brice and Ayesha Rascoe in Washington; Karen Brettell and Megan Davies in New York; Writing by David Alexander; Editing by Frances Kerry)