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Some hope an obscure maneuver could head off the debt crisis. Not so fast, experts say

While most signs point toward what could be a historically ugly and market-rattling debt limit fight in the coming months, some are hoping there could be a procedural off-ramp to avoid the crisis.

An obscure bit of congressional procedure called a discharge petition has been getting mentioned more and more. It would theoretically allow moderate Republicans to team up with Democrats to release a bill from committee and put it up for a full House vote — even over the objections of Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Even some lawmakers, such as Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), have brought it up in recent days suggesting it's a strong option.

But it's a complicated process, experts warn, and the question is whether disenchanted moderates like Fitzpatrick would be willing to not just break with their party, but also mount a drawn-out procedural fight over the issue.

“There are multiple steps and multiple actors involved, which in a collective body like Congress that moves as fast as it does, is a recipe for it not being done,” said Dr. Casey Burgat, the director of a Legislative Affairs program at George Washington University, about the discharge petition process.

“That's why we haven't seen it used that much, to say nothing of the politics of it."

And the challenge got steeper this week with the passage of a House rules package that empowers far-right Republicans even more.

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 7: Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., takes the gavel after securing the speakership on the 15th ballot on Saturday, January 7, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy takes the gavel after securing the speakership on the 15th ballot on Saturday, January 7. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Inside the discharge petition process: ‘They got to earn it’

When it comes to the discharge petition, getting six moderate Republicans to side with the current 212 Democrats to reach the magic number of 218 is only one step in a process that was explicitly designed to be difficult when it was introduced in the so-called revolt of 1910 against then-Speaker Joseph Cannon.

"I would not call the discharge petition ‘simple,’” said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. “Because the discharge petition is a tool to circumvent the leadership, it has been historically unpopular with party leaders.”

The first step is that a bill must be idling in a relevant House committee for a full 30 legislative days before a discharge petition can even be filed.

Then, once it has garnered 218 signatures, that bill is released from committee, but immediately faces another wait of seven more legislative days. Then, the Speaker is obligated to put it up for a vote, but there are plenty of other possible stumbling blocks.

For example, the discharge petition process likely requires a stop at the House Rules Committee. That hurdle got even higher this week with a rules package that guarantees three hardline conservatives seats on the powerful committee. It is possible to do yet another petition to bypass the committee, but that's another step and would likely involve further delays if the gambit even worked.

Joseph Gurney Cannon was Speaker of the House from 1903-1911 and eventually had one of Congress's most prominent buildings, the Cannon House Office Building seen above, named in his honor. (Photo: Architect of the Capitol)

And that’s not all.

The bill then only becomes eligible for consideration on what are known as discharge days, which only occur twice a month. Finally, other potential obstacles include germaneness requirements and countermeasures that conservative Republicans could employ to make the process even more painful or even stop it entirely.

“They got to earn it,” Burgat noted of what would be required to get the bill to the finish line. “The biggest constraint is the time.”

The politics of it all

Historically, when it comes to discharge petitions for contentious measures, there are more examples of failure than success.

In 2014, Democrats tried the maneuver on the minimum wage without success. One bright spot for proponents was the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as McCain–Feingold, which reformed campaign finance laws and was passed out of the House using a discharge petition.

The bottom line is that if advocates wait for the current negotiations to play out, there might not be time to undertake the rancorous and lengthy process. A government default is not projected to occur until July or later, but it’s a constantly moving target.

UNITED STATES - JULY 30: Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., speaks as Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., right, listens during the Problem Solvers Caucus news conference on the infrastructure deal outside of the Capitol on Friday, July 30, 2021. (Photo by Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), speaking, and other members of the Congress's Problem Solvers Caucus may try and mount a discharge petition to raise the debt limit. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

At the moment, Speaker McCarthy and hardline Republicans have reportedly reached an agreement whereby any debt limit deal would also include deep cuts in the federal budget, potentially including the military and entitlement programs like Social Security.

Those terms would be anathema to Senate Democrats and the White House, both of which have vowed not to negotiate on raising the limit.

Meanwhile, moderate Republicans have grown increasingly disenchanted with their far-right colleagues. In one example, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) unloaded on Republicans who wouldn’t vote for McCarthy, saying “we cannot let the terrorists win.” But he later apologized for his choice of words.

“In a five-seat majority, everyone is empowered, it's just a matter of how willing you are to piss off historically strong people [and] be the actual villain in the story” Burgat said.

“Moderates, almost by definition, are not that. It’s just a matter of how far you're willing to take it.”

Ben Werschkul is a Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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