Borrowing Authority Hinges on Senate Rule Shortcuts

In a chamber full of ways to slow or halt the legislative process, U.S. senators say they are ready to move quickly on a deal to extend the debt limit and end the partial government shutdown.

While there’s no guarantee that a final vote will take place before the government’s borrowing authority expires tomorrow, that’s the new goal of congressional leaders -- and it’s possible because lawmakers who have the power to slow the progress of legislation say they will let things move forward as quickly as possible.

Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who held the floor for more than 21 hours in a budget debate last month, said today that he won’t insist on all of the debate time permitted by Senate rules on the bipartisan fiscal deal announced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

“There is nothing to be gained from delaying this vote one day or two days,” Cruz told reporters today in Washington. “This debate, this fight will continue.”

The fiscal agreement would end the 16-day-old partial government shutdown. It would also allow the U.S. to continue borrowing, a day before its authority lapses.

Budget dissenters who decide to simply vote “no,” instead of insisting on their right to a long debate, will be permitting a shortcut that trims days off the legislative schedule.

Slow Walk

“You could hypothetically be taking at least two days to get this done if someone wants to mount a serious filibuster,” Patrick Griffin, who teaches at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at Washington’s American University, said in a telephone interview.

Here’s how that happens:

When a senator wants to drag things out, Reid responds by moving to cut off debate -- a process called cloture.

Limiting debate requires a cooling-off period and then a supermajority vote. Sticking to the rules means waiting two nights before the cloture vote, which requires the support of 60 senators in the 100-member chamber.

If that supermajority is achieved, the rules permit as many as 30 hours of debate, and a determined opponent could insist that all 30 hours expire before the next step in the process.

For a bill the Senate hasn’t taken up before, that sequence can play out twice: first on a motion to proceed to the bill, and then on the bill itself.

That’s not going to happen on the debt-and-shutdown legislation.

Unanimous Consent

When the Senate is in a hurry and everyone agrees that speed is important -- which seems to be the case today -- it’s possible to avoid all of that through a unanimous-consent agreement.

“There’s no shortcut unless there’s unanimous consent,” said Griffin, who has seen the process as a top aide to two Senate Democratic leaders, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and as the White House director of legislative affairs under President Bill Clinton. “We’re in unprecedented circumstances here, and with the clock running.”

Using a unanimous-consent agreement instead of following every rule to the letter could make it possible for President Barack Obama to get a debt-and-shutdown bill on his desk either later today or tomorrow -- evidence of the value of sometimes not going by the rulebook.

The longest-serving member in congressional history, Representative John Dingell, described the importance of the rules this way in 1983: “I’ll let you write the substance. You let me write the procedure, and I‘ll screw you every time.”

The accuracy and date of the vintage quote were confirmed by Christopher Schuler, communications director for the Michigan Democrat, who was first elected in 1955.

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