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Financial catastrophe looms as Congress works to address the country's debt ceiling

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The clock is winding down yet again for Congress to address the country's looming debt ceiling that lets the U.S. government borrow money to pay its bills. A financial catastrophe is in the waiting if it's not resolved by its expiration date in early December. Republicans have issued fresh warnings that they will not help Democrats suspend the federal borrowing limit again. Although they could raise it through a partisan process called reconciliation, many Democrats have expressed opposition. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Florida Democrat Stephanie Murphy is worried the country is headed for another dangerous fiscal cliff in a matter of weeks.

STEPHANIE MURPHY: I'm disappointed that Republicans have not assisted Democrats in lifting the debt ceiling as we have done in previous administrations.

GRISALES: Congress inched towards a debt default earlier this month as Democrats and Republicans were locked in a blame game.

MURPHY: After all, the debt ceiling is about making sure that we can pay our bills, not about future spending.

GRISALES: Republicans argue it actually is about Democrats future spending. But the GOP, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, agreed to a temporary deal putting off the deadline to early December.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: The majority didn't have a plan to prevent default, so we stepped forward.

GRISALES: The battle is centered on the evenly divided Senate. That's where Democrats need at least 10 Republicans to lift the debt limit or find a creative workaround. President Biden has even hinted at doing away with that requirement, but moderates may not be on board. McConnell and other Republicans say a partisan legislative process known as reconciliation is the only way out.

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MCCONNELL: Now there will be no question. They'll have plenty of time.

GRISALES: Democrats are already using the reconciliation process to take up Biden's signature social spending bill, but many in the party remain opposed to using it for the debt limit, too. Murphy remains one of the exceptions.

MURPHY: I think if reconciliation is the only pathway available to us, then we should act on it, and we should act on it soon.

GRISALES: Murphy may have gained a powerful ally on Sunday when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, on CNN's "State Of The Union," conceded it could be an option.

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NANCY PELOSI: That's one path, but we're still hoping to have bipartisanship.

GRISALES: Without it, many Democrats have argued reconciliation is too risky, and they cannot trust Republicans to allow its complex process to move fast.

MAZIE HIRONO: The Republicans will try to sabotage it every chance they get with hundreds of amendments probably.

GRISALES: That's Hawaii Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono, one of many vocal opponents of using reconciliation. Just before the short-term deal was reached with Republicans, Hirono joined her colleagues in articulating the high levels of distrust with the GOP.

HIRONO: They're probably just licking their lips at the prospect of screwing everybody over. They're good at that.

GRISALES: But Republicans argue it can be done quickly. Alan Frumin is a former Senate Parliamentarian, the chamber's referee who plays a key role in the reconciliation process. Frumin agrees that with cooperation, the debt limit could be addressed in a matter of days.

ALAN FRUMIN: Sure, this can be done in a week if there's a political will in the Senate to do that.

GRISALES: But Frumin warns it could still be an unpredictable and bumpy ride. For her part, Murphy is watching the battle closely and hoping for a resolution soon. She says possibly going it alone without Republican cooperation is a reality that Democrats must face.

MURPHY: We are where we are, and we cannot play with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.

GRISALES: But without all Democrats on board, the threat of financial chaos will loom larger and raise pressures to reach a final deal with or without reconciliation.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HELIO SEQUENCE SONG, "BATTLE LINES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.