WASHINGTON—Top Republicans and Democrats struck a deal for a process to raise the debt ceiling in the Senate, with the House preparing to vote on a bill Tuesday that would pave the way toward Congress avoiding a calamitous default.
The bill, which also prevents cuts to Medicare and other programs that threatened to kick in at the end of the year, is the product of weeks of talks between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.). It doesn’t itself raise the debt ceiling. Instead, it sets up a procedure for an additional vote on the issue that would require a simple majority in the Senate rather than the 60 votes needed for most legislation.
While GOP support won’t be necessary for the vote on the debt limit itself, at least 10 Republicans will have to support the legislation setting up the process. Mr. McConnell said Tuesday that he was confident that the proposal would win enough Republican support in the 50-50 Senate.
“So I believe we’ve reached here a solution to the debt ceiling issue that’s consistent with Republican views of raising the debt ceiling for this amount at this particular time and allows the Democrats to proudly own it, which they’re happy to do,” said Mr. McConnell, who added that the Senate could take up the bill on Thursday.
Republicans had pushed to force Democrats to use a special legislative process called reconciliation to raise the government’s borrowing limit along party lines, while Democrats maintained that Republicans should work with them on the debt limit. Mr. Schumer said that the agreement would allow Democrats to move forward on the issue without using the reconciliation process.
“Our goal has been to increase the debt limit. We want a simple majority without a convoluted, risky, lengthy process, and it looks like the Republicans will help us facilitate that, so we feel very good about where we’re headed on the debt ceiling,” Mr. Schumer said.
The Treasury Department had warned that after Dec. 15 it may exhaust its ability to meet the government’s obligations.
Raising the debt limit doesn’t authorize new spending; it allows the government to issue new debt to pay for existing obligations, such as Social Security benefits and interest payments.
Under the agreement, Democrats will vote to raise the debt limit by a dollar amount, rather than voting to suspend it for a period. Lawmakers have in recent years largely suspended the debt limit until a certain date, rather than voting to allow a specific amount of debt. Republicans pushed to make Democrats authorize a figure in an effort to tie them to rising debt levels.
Democrats are still discussing the size of the debt limit increase they will pass, and Mr. Schumer floated different options during a lunch with Democrats on Tuesday, according to people familiar with the meeting.
Because Republicans were prepared to block raising the debt limit through the Senate’s normal procedures and Democrats refused to pursue the party-line reconciliation process, party leaders searched for weeks for alternative avenues to avoid a default. Lawmakers had discussed setting up a majority vote as part of the annual-defense policy bill, though Republicans resisted it and that idea was dropped.
Senate Republicans signaled they were open to the agreement between Messrs. McConnell and Schumer. Sen. Kevin Cramer (R., N.D.) said he called on other Republicans at a party lunch Tuesday to provide cover for each other and rally around the vote.
“It may be the least bad deal. I wouldn’t call it a great deal or a good deal. But hey, it’s a 50-50 Senate and we’re here,” he said. “I would hope that we don’t start talking to each other and saying ‘how do 40 of us get out of this?’”
Democrats said they would accept the agreement.
“If the Republicans are willing to come to the table enough to create a procedural way for the Democrats to pass the debt ceiling alone, then the Democrats are willing to be the grown-ups in the room and get it done,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.).
The agreement puts lawmakers on track to avoid the partisan vitriol that defined the issue earlier this year, when Democrats repeatedly rejected the GOP demand that they raise the debt limit through reconciliation. That clash resulted in the two parties agreeing to a short-term $480 billion increase, with 11 Republicans supporting a procedural motion to do so, and Mr. McConnell vowed he would not again help Democrats raise the debt limit.
Mr. McConnell said Tuesday’s agreement was consistent with his previous promise.
“The red line is intact. The red line is that you have a simple-majority, party-line vote on the debt ceiling, that’s exactly where we will end up,” he said.
Corrections & Amplifications
The House is preparing to vote on a bill Tuesday that would pave the way toward Congress avoiding a default. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Thursday. (Corrected on Dec. 7, 2021.)
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