Biden just floated the ‘nuclear option’ for the debt ceiling – what does that mean and how likely is it?

President Joe Biden is considering the so-called “nuclear option” for passing an extension to the federal government’s debt ceiling amid historic resistance from Republicans in the Senate, who are opposed to providing any votes to allow a debt ceiling increase.

The president’s consideration of the move – shorthand for a carve-out of the Senate’s filibuster rule allowing debt ceiling legislation to be passed with a simple 51-vote majority – comes as Senate Republican leadership has flatly rejected the idea of any Republican votes helping Democrats reach the filibuster-proof threshold for raising the debt ceiling.

To put the debt ceiling in more layman’s terms, raising it simply allows the US to make payments on debt it has already incurred. A refusal to raise the debt ceiling amounts to racking up a credit card balance but declining to make any payments.

One GOP senator known for breaking party lines on some key votes, Sen Susan Collins of Maine, has floated the idea that some Republicans could break ranks to support a debt ceiling increase, but only if Democrats abandon their plan for a vast $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill overhauling social services, addressing climate change and providing for free community college.

That idea is a non-starter for the White House, and puts the country on a dangerous precipice as the US risks defaulting on its loans for the first time in history, which would have serious consequences for future borrowing.

How likely is it that the Senate uses the ‘nuclear option’?

Mr Biden called it a “real possibility” late Monday upon returning to the White House and taking questions from reporters on the south lawn. That’s significant, because the president has up until now shown uniform opposition to any changes to the filibuster rule, even for issues such as voting rights.

As president, Mr Biden cannot change the filibuster rule himself, and such a move would require the consent of every Democratic senator in the majority caucus. Therein lies the issue, as the same two Democratic senators – Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema – holding up the passage of his social welfare reconciliation bill have indicated similar resistance to changing the filibuster in the past.

Ms Sinema has not commented publicly yet about whether she would support a filibuster carve-out for the debt ceiling, but the prospect of real damage to the US credit rating and the threat of recession could spur movement from the conservative Democrat.

Mr Manchin suggested to reporters that they “forget the filibuster” on Monday, and suggested that there were other avenues to raise the debt ceiling without changing it.

On Wednesday, he went further, telling reporters: “I’ve been very very clear where I stand on the filibuster. Nothing changes.”

He has also said in the past, however, that he hoped Mr McConnell would act in “a much more amicable way” as a result of his position on the rule, which has clearly not happened.

What is the lasting significance of using the ‘nuclear option’?

The end result of changes to the filibuster would have far-reaching consequences beyond this week’s votes in the Senate. At a minimum, it would remove debt ceiling increases as a bargaining chip for the two parties to use in fights over unrelated policy issues.

It could also lead to broader repercussions, however, as Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has frequently threatened to wage war on every aspect of procedure in the Senate should Democrats end the filibuster or change it. He said in January: “It would be a nightmare. I guarantee it.”

Some Democrats have questioned just how real those threats are, however. Republicans already uniformly oppose most of the Democrat-supported legislation that reaches the Senate, and changed the filibuster rule themselves in 2017 to more easily confirm their Supreme Court nominees.

Are there any other options?

The main alternative floated by opponents of changing the filibuster is the budget reconciliation process; the Senate parliamentarian issued an advisory this week stating that Democrats could craft a second reconciliation bill raising the debt ceiling without affecting the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package the party is currently debating between the House and Senate.

But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has dismissed that idea, calling it “risky”. Mr Schumer argues there is not enough time between now and when the US will reach the debt ceiling to craft a new bill using the budget reconciliation process. He has demanded instead that Republicans cease their filibuster threat or support the existing Democrat-led bill to raise the debt ceiling.

“We do not have the luxury of using a drawn out, convoluted and risky process,” he told reporters on Monday.

He added on Tuesday that Democrats can raise the debt ceiling with their existing bill if Republicans “just get out of the damn way”.

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