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The Debt Limit and the Paradox of the Post-Nuclear Senate

The Senate is set to vote on cloture for the debt ceiling bill that passed the House on Monday. If the cloture vote should fail (i.e., if there are not 60 votes to end debate and advance the measure to final passage), we will have an interesting illustration of the paradox of the post-nuclear Senate. As Professor Seth Barrett Tillman has observed, since the Senate Majority Leader has already asserted the power to change/suspend/reinterpret(depending on how you want to look at it) the Senate rules by simple majority vote,  it is not clear in what sense the minority still has the power to prevent the bill from passing. It has the power only so long as the majority allows it to do so, which seems a lot like not having the power at all.

For ordinary legislation, one might argue that the filibuster rule, while not truly binding on the majority (or not recognized by the majority as binding, anyway), reflects a Senate norm that significant legislation should not be passed with narrow majorities. But the President and his congressional allies have advanced a theory that the debt limit is different than ordinary legislative matters. Raising the debt ceiling, it is claimed, is a technical necessity to prevent default on existing debt and potentially catastrophic economic consequences. For that reason the President has declared the debt limit exempt from the normal give and take of the legislative process and has decreed that he will only accept a “clean” debt limit bill.

The House leadership bowed to the President’s unwillingness to negotiate and allowed a clean debt limit measure to come before the House. The vast majority of Republicans voted against the bill, but there were enough Republicans voting for it, including the Speaker and House Majority Leader, to allow the bill to pass.

The argument will be made that Senate Republicans, even though they may prefer to vote against the debt limit bill for symbolic/political/ideological reasons (as Senator Obama did a number of years ago), have an obligation to produce enough votes to allow cloture to be invoked. But this argument loses much of its force in a post-nuclear Senate. If the Senate majority believes that the debt limit is so important, how could it justify not invoking the nuclear option to move the bill to final passage? Clearly there is no legal argument against doing so other than those which would have been equally applicable to the majority’s previous invocation of the nuclear option.

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