Senate Republicans have blocked a measure to suspend the US federal debt ceiling and avoid a potentially catastrophic government shutdown, leaving Democrats who narrowly control both chambers of Congress only three days to find another way to keep the government operating beyond Thursday – when current funding expires.
The legislation was aimed at beating two fast-approaching deadlines that, if left unaddressed, threaten to destabilise the US economy as it struggles to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The near party-line vote of 48 votes to advance against 50 opposed fell short of the 60 votes needed to push the bill ahead in the 100-seat Senate. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, voted “no” to allow him to call another vote.
Democrats now have just three days to find another way to keep the government operating beyond Thursday.
Republican senator Richard Shelby predicted that lawmakers would not resolve the standoff any time soon. “Probably will be here Thursday,” he told reporters.
Lawmakers also will have to figure out how to raise the debt ceiling to head off the risk of default, with independent analysts warning that the US Treasury is likely to fully exhaust its borrowing authority sometime between 15 October and 4 November.
Schumer, who has warned that a default would hammer the economy, said afterward that Democrats would take further action this week to avoid a government shutdown and debt default but did not specify what the next step would be.
“Our country is now staring down the barrel of two Republican-manufactured disasters,” he said on the Senate floor after the vote.
A government shutdown – or worse, a default – would be a huge hit to Joe Biden’s Democrats, who have positioned themselves as the party of responsible government after Republican Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency.
Republicans have refused to vote with Democrats on the debt ceiling despite Democrats doing so under the Trump administration, a time when Republican tax cuts added to the national debt.
“We will support a clean continuing resolution that will prevent a government shutdown,” said the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, in a speech on the chamber floor. “We will not provide Republican votes for raising the debt limit.”
In a letter released to reporters, the House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, and 63 other Democrats accused McConnell of “manufacturing a crisis” and said: “Holding the debt limit hostage is … dangerous, illogical and irresponsible.”
Republicans have said they want Democrats to lift the debt limit on their own, saying they do not support their spending plans. Democrats point out that much of the nation’s new debt was incurred during Trump’s administration.
Democrats are also at odds over two pillars of Biden’s domestic agenda – a $1trn infrastructure bill and a $3.5trn social spending package.