NPR logo Quick Debt-Ceiling Fix Impeded By Congress' Tricky Rules

Quick Debt-Ceiling Fix Impeded By Congress' Tricky Rules

Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Speaker John Boehner, on Capitol Hill, July 23, 2011. Harry Hamburg/AP hide caption

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Harry Hamburg/AP

Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Speaker John Boehner, on Capitol Hill, July 23, 2011.

Harry Hamburg/AP

There are now two competing proposals to raise the debt ceiling by the Treasury Department's August 2 deadline.

The one put forward by House Speaker John Boehner requires another raising of the debt ceiling before next year's elections. The other, coming from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, would increase the debt limit sufficiently so that it would not have to be done again until 2013.

But the deadline is eight days away now, and there's real concern there may not be enough time for either proposal — or a compromise version of the two — to get enacted by Congress.

One reason for that concern is the amount of time it takes to turn a proposal for raising the debt ceiling into actual legislation. Beyond the time needed to draft a bill (perhaps a day if it's a rush job,) there's also the requirement that it be "scored" by the Congressional Budget Office to verify its impact on the federal budget.

That scoring often takes two weeks, but it could be speeded up in an emergency situation like the one Congress now faces.

Moving a bill through the House is fairly simple. Presumably House Speaker John Boehner would waive the GOP's rule that legislation be available for members to study 72 hours before they vote on it. Once the bill is on the House floor, it generally can be finished in a day in a chamber where the majority holds most of the cards.

The Senate is entirely a different matter. In that 100-member body, it takes at least a 60-vote supermajority to limit debate and move to a vote.

So the GOP minority can stop anything with just 41 votes. And, because the chamber operates by unanimous consent, one senator alone can prevent the Senate from moving forward.

If a senator objects, which is highly likely in this case, it can trigger 30 hours of debate before a preliminary vote is taken to allow the Senate to actually proceed to the bill. If that vote is successful, there is then a 30-hour waiting period before the bill itself can finally be taken up.

That 60-hour debate-and-waiting period process? It can be triggered again if any senator objects to ending debate for a final vote. That's 120 hours of debate just to get to that vote.

How would this all play out in the coming days? Boehner and his House Republicans are likely to bring their two-stage lifting of the debt limit to the House floor, possibly by Wednesday. That means the Senate might be able to take it up as soon as Wednesday evening, if Majority Leader Reid should deign to give that bill the Senate's consideration (which is far from certain.)

If any senator objects to taking up the House bill, the 120 hours of required debate could kick in. And if the Senate stayed in session around the clock and if 60 senators or more voted to move past the procedural hurdles, the bill could be ready for a final vote next Monday, in time for President Obama to sign it into law Tuesday, Aug. 2.

All that assumes that the Senate does not amend the House bill, in which case it would have to be sent back to the House for final approval.

But that scenario isn't likely to happen. Much more probable is that Reid introduces his own debt-ceiling raiser in the Senate, possibly as soon as Tuesday, July 26.

It's virtually certain GOP senators would raise procedural obstacles, making it necessary for the Senate to stay on the bill at least until Sunday. And that's assuming the 51 Democrats and two Independents who caucus with them would be joined by at least 7 Republicans to reach the 60 vote threshold needed to move forward.

The bill would then be sent to the House, where it could be voted on possibly Monday, Aug. 1.

The problem with these two scenarios is that there may not be enough votes in both chambers to enact either one of them. In that case, some compromise that could get sufficient bipartisan support would have to be cobbled together in a hurry-up conference committee.

At that point, the rules of the Senate would still enable any senator to object to expedited consideration of such a compromise. That might mean it would take the rest of next week to deal with any new bill that might emerge if the two plans out there now don't get passed.

All of which is to say, there's really no time to spare for lawmakers aiming to avoid an August 3 default.