The Treasury Department said Wednesday that it has less than a month’s worth of room to maneuver before it hits the debt limit, dropping yet another major fiscal deadline in the lap of a Congress already stymied over the annual spending bills.
The spending fight took a step forward when the Senate moved past Sen. Ted Cruz’s 21-hour filibuster Wednesday afternoon, pushing toward a major vote at the end of the week on a stopgap spending measure that would shift pressure back to House Republicans.
“At this point, the debate is in the hands of the American people,” the Texas Republican told reporters after stepping off the Senate floor, where he held court for 21 hours and 19 minutes. “At this point, I think I’ve spoken long enough.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, called Mr. Cruz’s effort a “big waste of time” and vowed to speed up the clock. Indeed, later Wednesday the Senate voted unanimously to officially begin debate on the stopgap bill, putting it on track for a final vote no later than Saturday and possibly as early as Friday.
“The bottom line is very simple. Sen. Cruz has actually advanced our cause,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “He has alienated some of his colleagues, he has united Democrats and he has shown the American people that he is willing to hold them and their well-being hostage unless he gets his way.”
The Democratic schedule
The House last week passed a bill that keeps the government open through mid-December while halting all funding for President Obama’s Affordable Care Act and leaving the sequester budget cuts in place.
Senate Democrats have vowed to pass an amendment stripping out the Obamacare language.
If events play out as Democratic leaders have structured them, the Senate will vote Friday to cut off debate on the spending measure, will approve the amendment that would restore funding to Obamacare, pass the bill and then send it back to the House.
The Republican House leadership is struggling with what to do.
Meanwhile, the Treasury Department announced that it will run out of borrowing room by Oct. 17 and has just $30 billion in cash to pay incoming bills, which analysts said won’t last beyond the end of October and could be exhausted as early as Oct. 22.
That starts the clock ticking on another grim deadline, even with the spending fight pending.
A 21:19 speech
During that time, he read from Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham” and Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” did an impression of Darth Vader, approvingly cited words of wisdom from actor Ashton Kutcher and the TV show “Duck Dynasty,” and chastised his Senate colleagues and the news media for misinterpreting the intention of his fight.
“If you just report on the personalities and political games, you are taking sides in the issue,” Mr. Cruz said. “Why is that? Because those who want to keep Obamacare funded … want all of the coverage to be about personality, about the politics, about anything, anything, anything other than the substance.”
He walked off the Senate floor to applause and handshakes from Republican colleagues, and was mobbed by reporters and photographers outside the chamber.
But Democrats, eager to deflate some of the hype surrounding Mr. Cruz’s effort, argued that they allowed him to speak and set a time limit.
“This is not a filibuster. This is an agreement he and I made that he could talk,” Mr. Reid told Mr. Cruz on the Senate floor, and the White House pointedly noted that Mr. Obama didn’t watch any of it.
Republican leaders have questioned Mr. Cruz’s strategy, arguing that he was essentially fighting a bill that includes the very defunding provisions he wants to see passed.
Mr. Cruz, though, said that by the time those provisions are stripped out, he will have lost any chance to filibuster, so the only option to Republicans was to block the bill earlier in the process.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said Mr. Cruz was fighting a lost cause.
“All I know is how it ends. We don’t defund Obamacare. I’ve seen the movie before,” Mr. McCain told reporters.
Mr. Cruz’s allies in the defunding fight said the filibuster posed important questions to voters. Even if all sides can’t agree on halting the entire law, he said, there should be common ground on targeting some of the most unpopular provisions, such as a tax on medical devices.
Some lawmakers signaled that they expect House Republicans to counteroffer with some of those changes, or even with a one-year delay of the individual mandate, in response to whatever bill the Senate sends.
“Cruz is helping us get the American people back focused so to me, that’s what I celebrate and thank him for,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican. “If we change the momentum, then I think it’s difficult for Harry Reid to say with the polling data against this legislation on the adverse economic impact, to say I will not bring legislation on the floor to fix some of these problems.”
While Mr. Cruz has vowed to continue fighting to defund Obamacare on the spending bill, some Republicans now think they are in a stronger position to negotiate during a debt limit debate.
They argue that Americans don’t want to shut down basic government programs such as those on education and the environment, but oppose additional national debt and would be more open to negotiations tied to the borrowing limit.
Indeed, in 2011 the impending debt limit helped House Republicans win more than $2 trillion in planned budget cuts over the next decade.
But polling released Wednesday by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation suggests that voters fear a debt showdown would hurt the economy and their personal finances, which could undercut Republicans’ negotiating room.
Mr. Obama has warned that he will not engage in any negotiations over the debt limit, and congressional Democrats backed him.
House Democratic leaders said Wednesday that any debt increase should be big enough to last through January 2015, or well beyond next year’s congressional elections.
“Don’t mess with the debt limit,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
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