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Democrats’ Secret Weapon to Avoid Default: The Breaking the Gridlock Act

In January, Democrat Representative Mark DeSaulnier introduced a 45-page bill named “The Breaking the Gridlock Act”, aimed at avoiding a federal default if debt ceiling negotiations with Republicans remained deadlocked. Democrats have been quietly plotting a strategy to achieve their goal and smooth the way for Congress action to prevent the impending disaster. With the possibility of default now projected for June 1, Democrats are taking steps to deploy their secret weapon, a discharge petition that can bypass Republican leaders who have refused to raise the ceiling unless President Biden agrees to spending cuts and policy changes. Democrats began the process of trying to force a debt-limit increase bill to the floor through the discharge petition. An emergency rule Democrats introduced on Tuesday would allow them to begin collecting signatures on such a petition as soon as May 16, to resolve the debt limit crisis.

The strategy is a long shot, requiring the support of at least five Republicans willing to cross party lines if all Democrats signed on. Democrats are yet to decide on the debt ceiling proposal and for the strategy to succeed, they would likely need to negotiate with a handful of mainstream Republicans to settle on a measure they could accept. Nevertheless, Democrats argue that the prospect of a successful effort could force House Republicans into a more acceptable deal. House Democratic leaders had been hesitant to initiate a discharge petition as a way out of the stalemate, but behind the scenes, they were taking steps to make sure a vehicle was available if needed. The discharge petition process can be time-consuming and complicated, so Democrats started early and carefully crafted their legislative vehicle. The legislation was so broad and eclectic that it was referred to 20 committees, where it has sat idle for months. Mr. DeSaulnier’s intent was to create a shell of a bill that would ultimately serve as the basis for a discharge petition.

Democrats say that the beauty of the Mr. DeSaulnier’s bill, which Republicans have ignored, is that it long ago passed the threshold of being held in committee for at least 30 days, the minimum length of time to initiate a discharge petition to force action on legislation. In contrast, any legislation introduced by Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the Democratic chairman of the Rules Committee, would have drawn attention immediately, and Republicans might have been able to take action to derail it.

Discharge petitions have spurred action in the past by prompting House leaders to move on issues rather than lose control of the floor through a guerrilla legislative effort. But the procedure is rarely successful and has produced a law in only a handful of cases. Democrats believe that the current situation, with a default looming, showed that they have exhausted all other options, and this might be the only viable route to avoid a disaster.

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