US Senate Democrats and Republicans were expected to continue negotiating on Thursday to avert a debt crisis after Democrats showed openness to a Republican offer to allow an extension of the federal debt ceiling into December.
Democrats called off an early Wednesday afternoon vote after the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, floated the plan that would buy a couple of months to resolve the issue.
But it could also just kick the can down the road until late this year, when Congress also faces a deadline for funding the government. Democrats also want to pass two massive spending bills that make up much of President Joe Biden's domestic agenda in the coming weeks.
Without congressional action to raise the $28.4 trillion debt limit, the Treasury Department has forecast that it will run out of ways to meet all its obligations by Oct. 18. Republicans have blocked Democratic efforts to bring up legislation to suspend the cap.
But on Wednesday McConnell suggested passing legislation to raise the debt limit by a fixed dollar amount, which he did not specify, until December.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer met with his fellow Democrats behind closed doors to discuss McConnell's idea, but made no public comment. Other Democrats said they were examining the offer.
"I think it's a step forward. Obviously I hope we can now negotiate a process that creates a long-term solution" to the debt ceiling, said Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and is a leader on the left.
Later Wednesday evening, McConnell indicated the two sides were exchanging ideas. "We're trading paper," the Republican leader told reporters. "Which you always do at this point."
But while Democrats were interested in a two-month extension of the borrowing cap, they showed little interest in another suggestion by McConnell: that they use the intervening weeks to pass a longer-debt ceiling extension through a complex process called reconciliation.
Several Democrats said this would be too complicated and risky.
"We're not going to do debt limit through reconciliation," said Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow. "At this point, if we can move it (the debt ceiling) till December, that just gives us more time to ... get the President's agenda done."
"McConnell caved," said Senator Elizabeth Warren, another Democrat. "And now we're gonna spend our time doing childcare, healthcare, and fighting climate change."
Republicans, meanwhile, said they had been worried that Democrats might change a rule known as the filibuster that requires a supermajority of 60 votes for most legislation to advance, if the debt issue were not resolved.
The Senate is split 50-50 between the parties, which has allowed Republicans to use the filibuster to block Democratic efforts to suspend the debt limit as well as other Democratic initiatives. But Biden said late on Tuesday that Democrats would consider making an exception to the filibuster to hike the debt ceiling and defend the economy.
Asked if his fellow Republicans were getting concerned about getting close to a default, Senator Kevin Cramer said: "Republicans are more concerned about the prospect of blowing up the filibuster."