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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senate Republicans blocked an attempt by President Joe Biden's fellow Democrats on Tuesday to head off a potentially crippling U.S. credit default, raising questions about whether partisan tensions in Congress will threaten the nation's economy.
With federal government funding due to expire on Thursday and borrowing authority set to run out on Oct. 18, Democrats who narrowly control both chambers of Congress are working to head off twin fiscal disasters while simultaneously trying to advance Biden's ambitious legislative agenda.
So far, Republicans have prevented them from doing so.
Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday blocked a vote that would have suspended the nation's $28.4 trillion debt limit. Senate Republicans a day earlier defeated legislation that would have raised the debt limit and extended government funding.
Lawmakers now have just three days to avert a possible government shutdown by midnight Thursday, the end of the current fiscal year. Failure to do so could results in furloughs for hundreds of thousands of federal workers in the middle of a public health crisis.
Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate said they would soon advance spending bills to head off a shutdown.
Fiscal brinkmanship has become a regular feature of U.S. politics thanks to ongoing partisan polarization.
The most recent government shutdown, occurring during the presidency of Biden's Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, lasted 35 days before ending in January 2019.
A government shutdown or a default would be a setback for the Democrats, who ahead of next year's congressional elections have portrayed themselves as the party of responsible government after Trump's presidency.
Democrats are also struggling to unite behind two pillars of Biden's domestic policy agenda: a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion social spending package.
Oct. 18 deadline
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told lawmakers that the government would run out of options to service the debt by Oct. 18.
Republicans have refused to cooperate to raise the debt limit, saying they do not want to help Democrats spend more money. Democrats point out that much of the nation's debt was incurred during Trump's presidency.
On Tuesday, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said he would propose a vote to raise the debt limit, which could pass with just the support of the chamber's 48 Democrats and the two independents allied with them — as long as Republicans agreed to hold the vote.
"If Republicans really want to see the debt limit raised without providing a single vote, I'm prepared to hold that vote," Schumer said on the Senate floor.
If Republicans really want to see the debt limit raised without providing a single vote, I'm prepared to hold that vote.
–Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer
But that seemed to be headed for defeat, as Cruz said he would block the vote. "He's playing games," Cruz told reporters.
The House also will hold votes to extend government funding and raise the debt limit in the coming days, said Steny Hoyer, the chamber's No. 2 Democrat.
Democrats could opt to fold a debt-limit increase into a $3.5 trillion spending bill that would expand the nation's safety net, Hoyer said. They have already set up special rules that would allow that package to pass the Senate without Republican support.
But Democrats are still negotiating the size and contents of that package, and it could take several weeks to clear Congress and reach Biden's desk — dangerously close to the Oct. 18 debt-limit deadline.
"Frankly, it isn't really practical for us to consider that," Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, said on MSBC.
Democrats had originally planned to handle the social-spending bill, championed by the party's left wing, in tandem with a $1.1 trillion infrastructure package that has drawn bipartisan support. But they have scheduled a Thursday vote in the House for the infrastructure bill, even though the social-spending bill is still being negotiated.
Lawmakers on the party's left worry that package could fall by the wayside if Congress prioritizes spending on highways, broadband and other infrastructure.
"I've been clear from the start, these bills move together or they don't move at all," Rep. Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, a leading progressive, wrote on Twitter.