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Debt-ceiling standoff: What is the Democrats’ ‘discharge petition’ option?

House Democrats last week were pushing forward with a parliamentary procedure to raise the U.S. debt ceiling, even as — at the time — President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy sounded upbeat about getting to a deal.

As Democrats launch what’s known as a discharge petition, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York said his party must try “all legislative options” due to the urgency of avoiding default. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said that the U.S. could fail to pay its bills on time as soon as June 1 if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling.

Biden was en route home Sunday from a G-7 meeting in Japan after holding a news conference in Hiroshima, where he conceded he was also exploring the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that the validity of the public debt is inviolable, as an avenue to keep federal default at bay.

Following are a few things you should know about the discharge-petition procedure.

What is a discharge petition?

It’s a means of getting a bill to the House floor for a vote. While that sounds routine, it’s actually rather complicated. A discharge petition lets lawmakers bypass leadership, which is critical in this case, since the House is run by Republicans under McCarthy. Think of it as an end run.

It requires signatures and states a demand — in this case, raising the debt ceiling.

A successful use of the discharge-petition option would require a bill’s having been filed 30 or more legislative days earlier and languished in committee. Democrats in January, fearing McCarthy’s right flank would seek to stoke a debt-limit crisis by spring, acted prophylactically to satisfy this requirement when Rep. Mark DeSaulnier from the East Bay region in northern California quietly put forward legislation labeled the Breaking the Gridlock Act.

How many signatures does it need?

It needs 218. This is one of the hard parts — if not the hardest part — for Democrats, since Republicans control the House 222-213. That means at least five Republicans would need to join Democrats for the discharge petition to be successful. That’s a tall order, especially as McCarthy has slammed the move, telling Fox Business it was “going nowhere.”

Have discharge petitions been used successfully in the past?

Yes, but rarely. Some examples include renewing the Export-Import Bank in 2015, campaign-finance reform in 2002 and the first U.S. minimum-wage law in 1938.

What happens next?

Even if the House were to pass a bill to raise the debt ceiling, the Senate would have to act as well. And that’s assuming the so-called X-date doesn’t come first. That’s the day on which the government can’t meet all its obligations. A former House parliamentarian told the Wall Street Journal that final passage of an increase could come after the earliest projected X-date.

What else is happening on the debt ceiling?

In Biden’s absence — he left for the G-7 summit on Wednesday but wrapped up the trip on Sunday, rather than, as planned, continuing to Papua New Guinea and a Quad summit in Australia — representatives including White House budget director Shalanda Young have continued talks with Rep. Garret Graves, the Louisiana Republican deputized by McCarthy, with Graves and McCarthy sounding largely pessimistic tones since early Friday.

Before Biden departed, he said he was confident that the U.S. wouldn’t default. And McCarthy told CNBC, “I think at the end of the day, we do not have a debt default.”

U.S. stock markets

were buoyed by optimism over deal prospects beginning at midweek, though there was concern that the market tone, as reflected by stock-index futures, could be markedly changed by late Sunday.

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