The United States Senate has voted to approve a bipartisan agreement that would raise the country's debt ceiling, removing the last significant obstacle before the bill reaches President Joe Biden's desk.
With Biden anticipated to sign the newly passed bill, Thursday's decision is expected to avert an economic disaster, with only days remaining until the United States June 5 debt default deadline.
Senators voted 63 to 36 in favor of the legislation, which was hammered out over the weekend in often late-night negotiations between teams representing the Democratic Vice President Joe Biden and the Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, two figures who are frequently at variance.
The House of Representatives approved it on Wednesday.
"We are avoiding a default tonight," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Thursday as he guided legislation through the 100-member chamber, where the Democrats hold a razor-thin majority.
Biden hailed the measure's passage as a "huge victory for our economy and the American people." He indicated that he would make a further statement on Friday at 7:00 PM (23:00 GMT).
Senate Leaders Push Support For Deal
Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell rallied their respective parties' support for the agreement to suspend the federal borrowing limit until January 2025 before Thursday's vote.
On the Senate floor, Schumer, a Democrat, cited the bill's bipartisan triumph in the House of Representatives as an example for the Senate to emulate.
"Last night's House vote was a resounding affirmation of bipartisanship," Schumer said, referring to the 314-to-117 vote in favor of the debt-ceiling agreement on Wednesday.
Senators on both sides of the aisle opposed the measure and demanded amendments on various issues, including military spending and pipeline construction.
However, in a Thursday speech to his Senate colleagues, Schumer assured them that the Senate would remain in session until a bill was enacted, emphasizing that the default date was only four days away.
"We will continue to work until the task is completed. Schumer stated that the Senate lacks the time to prevent a default. In addition, he dismissed requests to alter the agreement's language.
"At this juncture, any unnecessary delays or last-minute hiccups would be an unwarranted and even dangerous risk. And any amendment that would require us to send this measure back to the House would be unacceptable. It would virtually ensure insolvency."
In the end, the decision on the agreement was preceded by a series of 10-minute ballots on the numerous amendments that had been proposed, with a minimum of 60 votes required for each amendment to pass.
Throughout the proceedings, Schumer acted to keep things moving while constantly reminding Senators of the stakes.
Concessions A Selling Point For Republican
In the meantime, Schumer's Republican counterpart, McConnell, emphasized the bill's conservative credentials to a party that was sharply divided over its merits.
"The Fiscal Responsibility Act prevents the catastrophic effects of a national debt default. Moreover, it makes the most significant strides in years toward curbing the irresponsible spending addiction of Washington Democrats, McConnell told the Senate.
Under the parameters of the debt-ceiling agreement, the Congressional Budget Office estimated on Tuesday that the federal budget deficit could be reduced by $1.5 trillion through 2033.
This reduction would primarily result from the agreement's limits on non-military discretionary spending, which would remain unchanged in 2024 and rise by only one percent in 2025. In addition, the measure would recover unused COVID relief funds and funds previously allocated to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the government's tax collection agency.
In addition, the agreement would require the government to recommence collecting payments on federal student loans, which had been suspended during the COVID pandemic.
Debate Over Military Spending
But on Thursday, Senate Republicans came out strongly against the deal's military spending, arguing that it was insufficient to enable the United States to compete internationally.
The debt-ceiling agreement proposes capping military spending for fiscal year 2024 at $886 billion, a 3% increase over this year. In fiscal year 2022, the United States spent $877 billion on defense, the largest military budget of any nation in the world.
Senators such as Susan Collins of Maine and Tom Cotton of Arkansas pointed out that the deal's increase in defense expenditure would be outpaced by inflation, posing a threat to US military might.
"This is not a budget founded on threats. This is a political compromise budget for individuals who have lost sight of the country's requirements. "We need safety and security," South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said in a passionate speech. "Do not tell me that a $42 billion below inflation defense budget adequately funds the military."
Initially, Graham and other ardent Republicans asserted that the Senate would continue debating until Tuesday if additional funds were not allocated to strengthen the military and aid Ukraine in the face of a Russian invasion.
However, Graham returned to the floor to urge Senate leadership to pursue a supplement to address concerns regarding military expenditure later this year. And Schumer himself ascended the podium in the midst of amendment votes to address the criticism directly.
Schumer stated, "This debt ceiling agreement does not limit the Senate's ability to appropriate emergency supplemental funds to ensure that our military capabilities are adequate to deter China, Russia, and other adversaries and to respond to persistent and growing national security threats."
Concerns From The Left
Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, criticized the inclusion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in the debt-ceiling agreement on the Senate floor.
The 489-kilometer (304-mile) natural gas pipeline has been controversial in Kaine's home state, where protests have been initiated to halt its construction through the Appalachian forest and private property.
"Despite the agreement's flaws, I intended to support it," Kaine said, citing the pipeline as his primary objective.
He proposed an amendment to remove the pipeline language from the measure.
When undertaking a pipeline project, approving it, and granting a private corporation the right to seize people's land, great care, and deliberation are required.
And on Wednesday, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders announced via Twitter that he would vote "no" on the agreement due to its burdens on the poor and middle class.
"I will vote against the deal to raise the debt ceiling because you cannot reduce the deficit on the backs of Americans who are already struggling," he wrote.
A Deal Long in The Making
Since its announcement on May 27, the 99-page debt-ceiling agreement has been controversial on both sides of the political aisle.
Democrats denounced de facto budget cuts that threaten social safety net programs. In addition, they opposed adding additional employment requirements to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
Meanwhile, Republicans criticized the fact that the expenditure cuts were not as severe as had been anticipated.
Robert Koepp, director of the Asia-Pacific Geoeconomics and Business Initiative at Chapman University in California, told Al Jazeera that the reality of last weekend's compromises and side deals was that the measure was "not nearly as substantial as they (Biden and McCarthy) are claiming."
A previous 320-page bill, passed by the Republican-led House in April but threatened by a White House veto, would have reduced government expenditure and imposed a stricter limit on the debt-ceiling increase, raising it by $1.5 trillion for approximately one year. Additionally, it would have targeted signature elements of Biden's domestic policy, such as tax credits for renewable energy initiatives.
However, the Biden-McCarthy debt-ceiling agreement was presented as a compromise. It reduced some of the conditions Republicans imposed on raising the debt ceiling, while the Biden White House backed away from its initial demand for a "clean" increase without conditions.