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

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy talks with Reps. Patrick McHenry and Garret Graves, his top negotiators for the debt ceiling bill, during a news conference after its passage in the House.
Drew Angerer
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Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy talks with Reps. Patrick McHenry and Garret Graves, his top negotiators for the debt ceiling bill, during a news conference after its passage in the House.

Updated June 1, 2023 at 12:33 AM 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 Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023overwhelmingly cleared the chamber Wednesday evening with a 314-117 vote.

The high stakes negotiations and subsequent passage of the bill were a critical test for McCarthy as speaker. With his narrow majority, McCarthy carried out 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.

There had been a question as to whether Democrats would supply just enough votes for the bill to pass to avoid a default or if they would come out in force in support of Biden. Ultimately, Democrats played a larger role than Republicans in its passage: 165 Democrats joined 149 Republicans to approve the bill.

"Tonight, the House took a critical step forward to prevent a first-ever default and protect our country's hard-earned and historic economic recovery," Biden said in a statement. "Neither side got everything it wanted. That's the responsibility of governing. I want to thank Speaker McCarthy and his team for negotiating in good faith, as well as Leader Jeffries for his leadership."

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

"Was [the bill] everything I wanted? No. But sitting with one House, with a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president who didn't want to meet with us, I think we did pretty dang good for the American public," McCarthy said during a press conference following the vote, referencing his frequent complaint that Biden wouldn't meet with him again after a February meeting until House Republicans passed a debt ceiling bill of their own.

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

The bill now heads to the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it will need 60 votes before it would go to Biden's desk. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has already said lawmakers are prepared to stay the weekend to pass the bill, if needed.

What's in the bill

The bipartisan billpairs a suspension of the debt limit 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.

The 99-page 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.

There were expected defections on both sides of the aisle

A bloc of conservative members expressed their alarm at some of the provisions in the bill, and argued 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 speakership that allows any single lawmaker to bring up a snap vote to potentially oust the speaker. But there was renewed dismay among some Freedom Caucus members Wednesday night — particularly around the fact that more Democrats supported the bill than Republicans — that could reignite calls to consider a motion to vacate.

McCarthy told reporters late Wednesday night he isn't concerned about a threat to his gavel.

As for Democrats, some members were vocal about their struggle between wanting to pass a bill to avoid a potentially catastrophic default and voting for legislation with provisions their constituents don't support, like work requirements and speeding up permitting on energy projects.

Michigan Democrat Elissa Slotkin told reporters ahead of the vote the deal is "imperfect" but necessary. She voted for the measure.

"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.

New Hampshire Rep. Annie Kuster, who chairs the centrist New Democrat Coalition which provided 91 Democratic votes Wednesday, told NPR she anticipated the vote coming from "the middle out."

"There are some bitter pills for different members and different constituencies in different districts, but overall, this is a must pass bill," she said.

Kuster added that Biden himself played an active role in reaching out to members to boost support for the bill in the days before the vote, saying he was "very involved."

She said she hopes the compromise deal 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."

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 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.