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House approves the Biden-McCarthy debt ceiling bill as default deadline looms

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy talks to reporters as he walks to the House floor for a procedural vote ahead of the final vote for H.R. 3746 - Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 on May 31.
Drew Angerer
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Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy talks to reporters as he walks to the House floor for a procedural vote ahead of the final vote for H.R. 3746 - Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 on May 31.

The vote comes as lawmakers race against the clock to beat a June 5 deadline for a potential federal default.

Updated May 31, 2023 at 9:26 PM ET

House lawmakers have passed a piece of compromise legislation brokered between President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to avoid an unprecedented debt default with just days to spare.

The measure passed the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 Wednesday evening with a vote of 314-117.

"I could say, 'I'm going to vote no because there's something not in the bill.' If I took that philosophy, I would never vote yes," McCarthy said on the floor, nodding to a faction in his conference unhappy with the deal.

"I simply read the bills in front of me and decide is this good for the country. I would say that answer is easily yes," McCarthy added. "For the first time in more than a decade, Congress will spend less next year than this year."

Democrats during the floor debate reiterated a claim they've made for months: that House Republicans held the economy hostage by not agreeing to pass a clean debt limit bill.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries praised his members for pushing back against "extreme MAGA Republican efforts to jam right-wing cuts down the throat of the American people."

Congressional leaders have been saying for weeks that any bill to prevent a default must have bipartisan support.

The 99-page bill cleared a procedural hurdle Wednesday afternoon with bipartisan support. Democratic lawmakers initially held back on voting on the rule needed to advance the legislation, leaving Republicans to be the only ones voting in favor of the rule for several minutes.

"I probably would've done the same thing," McCarthy said of Jeffries' choice to wait until the last minute to give his members the green light to vote. "Well played."

The vote came just days before the U.S. could run out of money to pay its bills, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

What's in the bill

The bipartisan billpairs a suspension of the debt limit for nearly two years to a package of spending cuts. It establishes spending caps for the federal budget while also making policy changes, including: a claw-back of approximately $27 billion in federal agencies intended to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and an overhaul of permitting reviews for energy projects. It shifts roughly $20 billion of the $80 billion the IRS got through the Inflation Reduction Act.

The bill phases in higher age limits for work requirements on certain federal safety net programs like food stamps, lifting the maximum age from 50 to 54 by 2025. It also would create new exemptions that waive those requirements for all veterans and those experiencing homelessness, and young adults between 18-24-years old aging out of foster care.

The Congressional Budget Office estimatesthe changes to the food stamp program could cost the government roughly $2.1 billion over the next decade.

The CBO forecasts the overall agreement would cut federal deficits by about $1.5 trillion over the next decade. That's just under 7% of what those deficits were projected to be prior to the deal. Most of the deficit reduction would come from caps on discretionary spending other than defense — which makes up a small portion of the federal budget.

Expected defections on both sides of the aisle

The high stakes negotiations for the deal and subsequent vote are a critical test for McCarthy as speaker. With his narrow majority, McCarthy had a bit of a balancing act — crafting a deal that satisfied the demands of the majority of his conference without alienating some of the Democratic lawmakers he needed to support the bill in order for it to pass.

A bloc of conservative members expressed their dismay at some of the provisions in the legislation, and argue McCarthy didn't align the bill close enough to a version the House passed in April.

"People want to compare to what they wanted," Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said ahead of the vote. "But they should compare to where we were at, which was we were going to get a clean debt ceiling with nothing."

GOP members left a closed-door conference meeting Tuesday night largely quashing the idea that disaffected members could move to oust McCarthy under a provision he agreed to during his fight for the gavel that allows any single lawmaker to bring up a snap vote to potentially oust the speaker.

Meanwhile, some Democratic members are struggling between wanting to pass a bill to avoid a potentially catastrophic default and passing legislation with provisions their constituents don't support, like work requirements and speeding up permitting on energy projects.

New Hampshire Rep. Annie Kuster told NPR Biden has been "very involved" in reaching out to members to boost support for the bill. The two spoke by phone about the legislation on Monday. Kuster chairs the center-left New Democrat Coalition, provided a major portion of Democratic votes Wednesday night. Kuster, who voted for the bill, said she hopes the compromise deals paves the way for a new chapter in bipartisanship.

"Since the prior president and certainly since Jan. 6th, it's been very difficult in the Capitol working across the aisle. It's been very painful," she said. "And I think this whole agreement is a turning of a corner toward a more productive relationship between Republicans and Democrats."

Ahead of the vote, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said he planned to vote 'no,' citing his concerns with changes to food assistance, which he argues will have a disproportionate impact on Black women.

But he left open the possibility that he'd support the bill if it would change the outcome.

"If some vote was required to make sure that the country wouldn't default, then I think any of us would provide it," he told reporters.

Michigan Democrat Elissa Slotkin told reporters ahead of the vote that the deal is "imperfect" but necessary.

"There was a group of us who felt strongly that while we didn't like the bill and we didn't like the way it was negotiated in many ways, we weren't going to let our country go over a fiscal cliff and that had to be our guiding force," she said.

NPR's Lexie Schapitl, Ximena Bustillo, Vincent Acovino and Scott Horsley contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.