7 min read

Wake Up To Politics - October 8, 2021

Wake Up To Politics: Senate approves debt ceiling hike
Wake Up To Politics - October 8, 2021

Good morning! It’s Friday, October 8, 2021. Election Day 2024 is 1,124 days away. Election Day 2022 is 396 days away.

It’s been quite a week. Thanks for sticking with me through lots of talk about the debt ceiling and other complicated topics. I hope my coverage has been helpful for you.

A quick programming note: There will be no newsletter on Monday — I hope you all have great weekends and I look forward to seeing you back in your inbox on Tuesday!

Senate approves short-term debt ceiling hike

The Senate passed a bill on Thursday to increase the debt ceiling by $480 billion, enough for the U.S. Treasury to pay its bills — and avoid a catastrophic default — through early December.

The short-term debt ceiling bill was the result of a compromise offered by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who had previously insisted that he would not lend Democrats a hand in averting a default. He has called for Democrats to use the labyrinthine reconciliation process to increase the debt ceiling after this stopgap fix expires later this year, an option they’ve resisted.

McConnell reportedly reversed himself out of fear that his hardened debt ceiling stance would push Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) to vote for a carve-out to the filibuster to address the debt ceiling, which could have led to further limits to the legislative filibuster McConnell has long deployed to great lengths.

Thursday’s vote was the result of a compromise offered by Mitch McConnell. (Nathan Posner / Wake Up To Politics)

However, McConnell’s Republican colleagues largely seemed not to share his worries: several GOP senators expressed displeasure with his change of position and few agreed to go along with him. After hours of working to persuade his top deputies to join him in supporting the short-term bill — a process Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-SD) compared to childbirth — the measure eventually surpassed the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster.

The bill advanced 61-38 in the procedural vote to break the filibuster, with McConnell and 10 other Republicans (mostly members of his leadership team and senators retiring in 2022) joining together with all 50 Democrats. The measure then passed 50-48, along party lines.

With the House expected to approve the measure on Tuesday, the threat of the U.S. defaulting on its debt seems to have passed — for now. However, the $480 billion increase is only expected to last the country until around December 3, the same date government funding is set to expire under a separate stopgap measure recently approved by Congress.

So if you thought the twin threats of a shutdown and default were intense this week: get ready to do it again in two months.

What else you need to know

Former President Donald Trump is directing Steve Bannon and three other former aides to ignore a subpoena from the House committee investigating the January 6 attack. Trump is citing executive privilege in telling his allies to flout the subpoenas, although most experts don’t believe the privilege extends to presidents once they are out of office.

Meanwhile, the January 6 panel issued a new round of subpoenas on Thursday, targeting organizers of the “Stop the Steal” rally that took place before the Capitol riot.

President Biden is expected to announce today that he will restore environmental protections stripped by the Trump administration for three national monuments: Bear Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts.

Biden will also speak about other climate actions being taken by his administration. Nearly two dozen federal agencies released reports on Thursday outlining their plans to respond to the threats climate change poses to “all corners of everyday life — from where we live to what we eat and how we get to work,” as NBC News put it.

U.S. troops have been secretly deployed in Taiwan for at least a year, according to the Wall Street Journal, a sign of concern within the Pentagon over China’s recent military buildup near the island.

President Biden will act today to enhance protections for Bear Ears National Monument. (John Fowler)

Ask Gabe: Your questions, answered

The threat of a default might have been averted — for now — but I still want to address a few more questions I’ve received on the national debt and the debt ceiling. (Warning: The second answer does delve deep into the legislative weeds, but why not nerd out with me on this Friday morning? I think you’ll find the last bit interesting.)

Q: Just how much are we spending yearly for the costs of servicing our national debt, i.e. what are the interest and fees we pay each year for this debt? — Ellen C.

A: Another good debt-related question. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the U.S. government paid about $345 billion in interest on its debt in Fiscal Year 2020. For comparison, that equaled about 1.6% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) and made up 5.3% of the nation’s total spending in the fiscal year, per the CBO.

Q: Why isn’t the Gephardt Rule being used in this discussion? — June G.

A: As I’ve discussed previously, the whole issue of the debt ceiling arises from a fairly odd conundrum that sets the U.S. apart from most other countries: The fact that when Congress authorizes the Treasury to spend certain amounts of money, it doesn’t automatically authorize it to take on the amount of debt needed to make those expenditures. (Instead, it caps how much debt the Treasury can issue. That cap is the debt ceiling.)

Back in 1979, a second-term Democratic congressman from Missouri proposed a fix to this fiscal puzzle: Under his solution, when the House voted to approve its annual budget resolution, a joint resolution raising the debt ceiling by the needed amount was deemed to have automatically passed the House as well.

This rule was adopted by the House and became known as the “Gephardt Rule” after Dick Gephardt, the future House majority leader and presidential candidate who proposed it. (It was later repealed in 2011 when Republicans took control of Congress, but a modified version was put in place when Democrats reclaimed the majority in 2019.)

A vintage photo of the 1988 Democratic presidential field. Dick Gephardt is the one on the far left. You might also recognize the candidate standing three spots to his right. (Source)

So why, to answer Joy’s question, does the House need to vote on a debt ceiling increase now? Two reasons: one is that the Senate never had any corresponding rule, so if the Senate rejected the joint resolution from the House, the two chambers still had to negotiate and then vote on a separate joint resolution to increase the debt ceiling.

And the other is that the rule only applies when the House actually passes an annual budget resolution — which it has pretty much stopped doing in recent years. If the House doesn’t follow its traditional budget process, the Gephardt Rule doesn’t come into play and can’t help the House avoid a debt ceiling vote.

One last interesting nugget: The Gephardt Rule moved the onus on the debt ceiling from the House to the Senate, but there’s another maneuver that’s been used to place the debt ceiling in the president’s lap instead of Congress’. Known as the “McConnell Rule,” because Mitch McConnell first proposed it in 2011, this tool allows the president to raise the debt ceiling himself and then gives Congress the ability to vote to disapprove the increase after the fact.

The device was used a few times in the Obama era, but the “McConnell Rule” has never been formalized or made permanent. It would be interesting to see if the rule’s original developer would be open to putting it back on the table for discussion...

Do you have a question on American politics that you want answered? Email me at gabe@wakeuptopolitics.com and your question might get featured in a future issue of the newsletter.


All times Eastern.
President Joe Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing at 9:30 a.m. Later, at 10 a.m., he will sign two bills into law: S. 1828, the Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks (HAVANA) Act, and S. 1917, the K-12 Cybersecurity Act. At 11:30 a.m., he will deliver remarks on the September jobs report.

At 1:45 p.m., Biden will deliver remarks on restoring protections for three national monuments and other steps his administration is taking to combat climate change. At 2:30 p.m., he will receive his weekly economic briefing. Finally, he will depart the White House at 6:15 p.m. and arrive at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, at 7:10 p.m.

Vice President Kamala Harris will depart Washington, D.C., for Newark, New Jersey, at 9:35 a.m. Once there, at 11:45 a.m., she will participate in a roundtable conversation on the Biden administration’s child care proposals at Ben Samuels Children’s Center at Montclair State University. At 2:40 p.m., Harris will tour a vaccination site at Essex County College. At 4:35 p.m., she will depart New Jersey for Washington, D.C.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will hold her daily press briefing at 2:30 p.m.

The Senate is on recess until Monday, October 18.  The chamber will meet briefly at 11:30 a.m. for a pro forma session; no business will be conducted.

The House is on recess until Tuesday, October 12. The chamber will meet briefly at 10 a.m. for a pro forma session; no business will be conducted.


The Supreme Court will meet today for its weekly conference.

Thanks for waking up to politics! If you enjoy reading this newsletter, I’d be so grateful if you’d consider donating to help support me and my work. If you want to show off your support for Wake Up To Politics, you can also buy some merchandise.

Also: don’t forget to tell your friends and family to sign up for the newsletter at wakeuptopolitics.com. And if you have any questions or comments, feel free to email me at any time.