The intricate journey of the US debt ceiling deal towards approval in Congress

On Saturday, Democratic President Joe Biden and leading Congressional Republican Kevin McCarthy agreed upon suspending the U.S. government’s borrowing limit of $31.4 trillion, an urgent step to prevent a disastrous default that could occur as soon as June 5.

However, their struggle continues. The next phase involves steering this deal through the divisive partisan landscape of the House of Representatives, which is controlled by a slim Republican majority, and the Senate, under Democratic control.

Biden and House Speaker McCarthy have endorsed the agreement, crafted by their respective assistants during private discussions over the past few days.

The next step is for the agreement to be formulated into law, a process McCarthy has affirmed would occur on Sunday. He has also committed to allotting House members a 72-hour window to review the legislation, after which the passage through both the House and Senate will require several additional days.

Time is of the essence. The Treasury Department has cautioned that the federal government will be unable to meet all its financial obligations come June 5.

Both the leading Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate have either already organized or conducted meetings to enlighten their members about the specifics of the bill, with the aim of persuading potential detractors to conform.

This is a critical juncture as both Republican and Democratic “whips” tally the numbers of supporters and opponents. A rebellion from the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which holds significant influence over McCarthy, could potentially disrupt the process if its members feel the agreement does not sufficiently reduce expenditure.

On the other hand, some progressive Democrats might oppose the bill if they feel it concedes too much to Republican demands.

Armed with the whip counts, McCarthy has to judge whether the bill stands a robust enough chance of being passed to move forward. If it doesn’t, he has the option to either refrain from holding a vote and revisit the drafting phase or opt for the riskier route of presenting it to the entire House with the hope of narrowly securing victory.


In case the situation turns critical, the House may resort to an infrequently used emergency strategy: a “discharge petition” to push for a “clean” debt limit increase—with no budget stipulations attached—for a vote. House Democrats support this strategy but would need sufficient Republicans to join them for it to succeed.

Biden could consider an untested legal theory of invoking the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which insists that “the validity of the public debt of the United States… shall not be questioned.” This could potentially allow him to authorize additional borrowing, although it would likely face immediate legal challenges.


The House, controlled by Republicans with a slim 222-213 majority, is anticipated to take the first action. A simple majority—at least 218 votes if all members are present—is required for the bill to pass.

Cross-party cooperation will be needed, as some ultra-conservative Republicans or certain progressive Democrats dissatisfied with the outcome may vote against it.

The process of House debate and passage, including preliminary votes, could take a day or two.


If the House approves the legislation, it progresses to the Senate, where Democrats have a narrow 51-49 majority over Republicans. Similar to the House, the vote on passage may not strictly follow party lines, as senators from either party may have different reasons to oppose the bill.

To pass the bill, at least nine Republican votes would be needed to bypass the Senate’s “filibuster” rule, which necessitates 60 out of the 100 members’ votes to advance most legislation.

The Senate’s consideration of the bill could consume most of a week.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has the ultimate control over when the bill is put to a vote. However, individual senators can delay the process by demanding procedural steps, such as 30 hours of debate on whether to commence discussion and another 30 hours of debate on the bill itself.

The Senate would need to pass the bill without any alterations to the House version; otherwise, it would have to return to the House for another vote.

If a 50-50 deadlock were to occur in the Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris has the power to cast the deciding vote to achieve a 51-50 passage.

Following approval by both the House and Senate, the agreement would then be sent to the White House for Biden’s final signature to become law.

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