US debt ceiling bill passes key test: what are its implications?

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) (right) was among the members who broke a filibuster to fast-track the debt limit bill

By Kate Brannen

BBC News, Washington

Congress is moving to avoid a partial government shutdown by advancing a crucial bill to raise the US debt ceiling and provide federal funding.

It will be the first such vote in two years.

But it has taken a bipartisan vote in the Republican-controlled Senate to approve it.

Democrats say the bill is unfair and won’t balance the budget.

Despite calls from senior Democrats not to vote on a ‘must-pass’ bill and the opposition of a handful of GOP members, a majority of Republican senators broke ranks to support the measure.

What’s going on here?

Monday night, in what has been dubbed “an unprecedented cloture vote”, a minority of senators have stood their ground and stayed overnight on the Senate floor.

The disapproval of this tactic is entirely procedural: the question is whether each senator opposed the measure now or later.

One other piece of this is unusual – it’s never happened before, a number of GOP senators have accused the Democratic majority of trying to bring down the GOP president in an attempt to ‘legislate’ the next president.

Of course, we have a president whose party controls the House and the Senate – which is exactly what President Obama wants.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is also pushing for a debt ceiling vote this week.

That’s partly because the Republican House is expected to approve a clean bill to raise the debt ceiling this week and send it on to the Senate.

It would then need to be voted on there and approve by the same margin to become law.

The full Senate would then have to pass it as well before sending it to President Obama to sign.

But as the Democrats in the Senate take up their new minority role, they are trying to turn up the heat in its opposition.

Democrats are confident this is a tactic to send a message – threatening a government shutdown if Republicans insist on passing a debt ceiling bill that is unacceptable.

Whether the president will accede, given his personal and political goals, is something only time will tell.

What exactly is at stake?

Most commonly, the catch is a way for the government to continue borrowing money and paying for essential services.

To do this, it borrows money.

There are other potential consequences in a debt ceiling shutdown.

It’s impossible to say what will happen if Republicans insist on a clean bill and Democrats refuse to pass it.

But the GOP leader Mitch McConnell has said he’s “disappointed” that Congress is seeing Washington “fighting to shut down the government”.

“I think it’s important for us to avoid a shutdown,” Mr McConnell said.

In terms of funding a government before the next government budget runs out on Friday, there’s something of a catch there as well.

The 2014 CR voted on in 2012 was to fund the government until 31 December of this year.

The new bill the Senate would consider would extend funding until 15 January of the following year.

Will there be a last-minute deal?

That’s a long time of no government funding for many government departments.

But the obvious obvious fallback is not to use the “fast-track” process that would be needed to finalise any such deal.

The 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulations were “fast-tracked” in 2012 so that they could be re-authorized, and they passed Congress almost all at once – without anyone noticing.

That government shutdown wasn’t fatal: the new legislation won early approval and took effect.

What are the chances of a shutdown?

Depends on whom you ask. Most Americans are preparing for that – by buying new food and buying other important items to keep themselves and their family going.

The Obama administration is warning that every-day service providers would stop if the government stopped being able to pay them.

Some private sector firms, like credit bureaus and tax software, have already issued statements saying if the government shuts down their services will come to a halt.

But at least they are signalling this is a possibility so that it would be something consumers could consider when deciding what to do.

The Democrats in the Senate have been hammering this point, saying it would make no sense to take out the health insurance that millions of Americans have and could leave them at the mercy of the insurers.

Will the new Republican leaders get their way in getting the debt ceiling bill passed?

Or if they don’t, will it simply show how reluctant they are to pass spending bills?

Only time will tell.

Read more from The BBC’s John Simpson blog

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