WASHINGTON — The bipartisan debt limit bill is on its way to President Joe Biden after the U.S. Senate voted Thursday to clear the measure for his signature.
The 63-36 vote followed several amendment votes, all of which were rejected. Biden is expected to quickly sign the package, preventing a default on the debt that otherwise would have begun as early as Monday.
Senators said during debate the legislation was far from perfect, though many opted to support it despite their reservations over some of its provisions.
Republicans expressed frustration the 102-page bill caps defense spending and Democrats lamented it makes changes to work requirements on some safety net programs.
Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, said the package “fails to meet our current moment,” though she said she would vote for the bill to avoid a default on the debt.
“But I do so with deep concern and with a determination to prevent us from ever being in this situation again,” Murray said, adding she hopes to lessen the impact of the spending caps “at every possible opportunity.”
Murray said she would work with the White House and Republicans to reduce the impact on domestic priorities and national security, though she said if Congress decides to pass a separate emergency funding bill it shouldn’t focus solely on defense priorities and aid for Ukraine.
Spending on border security, natural disaster aid, education assistance and other nondefense accounts, Murray said, have a real impact on people’s lives.
“The funding decisions we make right here in this chamber are not just numbers on a page,” she said. “The policy we write and sign into law has a direct consequence on people’s lives and every member of Congress needs to recognize that.”
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said her two primary issues with the legislation were that it had a “completely inadequate” spending level for defense and included a provision that would institute a 1% across-the-board cut to discretionary spending if Congress doesn’t approve all dozen annual government funding bills by Jan. 1.
Collins called for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to publicly commit that he would carve out floor time for the appropriations bills and for the Biden administration to agree to an emergency defense supplemental spending bill.
“The defense budget submitted by President Biden and included … as the topline in this package is insufficient to the task of fully implementing the national defense strategy at a time when we face serious and growing threats around the world,” Collins said.
Schumer later entered a joint statement with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, into the official record.
Schumer said the agreement clarified the debt limit bill didn’t prevent the Senate from passing emergency spending bills to address defense and national security issues, including the war in Ukraine. It also doesn’t affect the chamber’s ability to approve emergency spending bills to address national issues, such as natural disaster response or the Fentanyl crisis.
“The Senate is not about to ignore our national needs, nor abandon our friends and allies who face urgent threats from America’s most dangerous adversaries,” Schumer said.
A written statement from Schumer and McConnell addressed Collins second concern. The two leaders said they “will seek and facilitate floor consideration of” the dozen annual government funding bills “with the cooperation of Senators of both parties.”
The U.S. House voted 314-117 on Wednesday to approve the debt limit package, which would suspend the country’s debt limit until January 2025 and set caps on discretionary spending for the next two years.
The bipartisan agreement, brokered during weeks of closed-door meetings between Hill negotiators and the White House, would limit the federal government to spending $886 billion for defense and $704 billion for nondefense during the fiscal year that’s set to begin Oct. 1.
The next year, fiscal 2025, the bill would set the ceiling at $895 billion for defense and $711 billion for nondefense.
McConnell said before the vote the defense funding levels are “certainly disappointing.”
“So while the coming votes are an important step in the right direction, we cannot neglect our fundamental obligation to address the nation’s most pressing national security challenges,” McConnell said.
Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine spoke out against a provision in the bill that would approve the natural gas Mountain Valley Pipeline from West Virginia into Virginia.
Kaine argued that it was inappropriate for Congress to intervene, essentially overruling the regulatory process as well as the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which he said ruled “the agency didn’t do what they were supposed to do” so they had to “go back and do it right this time.” Kaine’s amendment to remove that section of the bill was unsuccessful following a 30-69 vote.
“The permitting process isn’t just about building, but it’s about holding the developer to strict standards so that when they build the pipeline, they minimally disturb the land, they minimally affect species, they minimally affect creeks and streams and river crossings,” Kaine said, noting the pipeline would cut through about 110 miles in the western part of the state.
“In the Appalachian region of Virginia, a lot of people don’t have very much. For many of them, their land is what they have. And for many of them, that land has been in their family for generations,” Kaine added.
“They are entitled to a fair process that would look about the need for the pipeline and what is the best route and then would insist that the pipeline be built to a high standard to maximally protect their property,” Kaine said.
In addition to raising the debt ceiling and capping discretionary spending, the legislation would make several other changes to federal programs.
It would rescind $28 billion in COVID-19 funding that hasn’t yet been spent and about $2 billion in funding for the Internal Revenue Service that Democrats approved in August.
The bill would change work requirements for people participating in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the legislation would lower the deficit by $1.5 trillion during the next decade.
Capping some federal spending would lower costs by $1.3 trillion and taking back the COVID-19 budget authority would lower spending by $11 billion. Interest on the debt would go down by $188 billion.
But reducing the amount of money the IRS has, CBO said, would increase the deficit by $900 million since “rescinding those funds would result in fewer enforcement actions over the next decade and in a reduction in revenue collections.”
And changes to SNAP would increase federal spending by $2.1 billion, the CBO said.