The only clue to the gambit was in the title of the otherwise obscure hodgepodge of a bill: “The Breaking the Gridlock Act.”
But the 45-page legislation, introduced without fanfare in January by a little-known Democrat, Representative Mark DeSaulnier of California, is part of a confidential, previously unreported, strategy Democrats have been plotting for months to quietly smooth the way for action by Congress to avert a devastating federal default if debt ceiling talks remain deadlocked.
With a possible default now projected as soon as June 1, Democrats on Tuesday began taking steps to deploy the secret weapon they have been holding in reserve. They started the process of trying to force a debt-limit increase bill to the floor through a so-called discharge petition that could bypass Republican leaders who have refused to raise the ceiling unless President Biden agrees to spending cuts and policy changes.
“House Democrats are working to make sure we have all options at our disposal to avoid a default,” Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York and the minority leader, wrote in a letter he sent to colleagues on Tuesday. “The filing of a debt ceiling measure to be brought up on the discharge calendar preserves an important option. It is now time for MAGA Republicans to act in a bipartisan manner to pay America’s bills without extreme conditions.”
An emergency rule Democrats introduced on Tuesday, during a pro forma session held while the House is in recess, would start the clock on a process that would allow them to begin collecting signatures as soon as May 16 on such a petition, which can force action on a bill if a majority of members sign on. The open-ended rule would provide a vehicle to bring Mr. DeSaulnier’s bill to the floor and amend it with a Democratic proposal — which has yet to be written — to resolve the debt limit crisis.
The strategy is no silver bullet, and Democrats concede it is a long shot. Gathering enough signatures to force a bill to the floor would take at least five Republicans willing to cross party lines if all Democrats signed on, a threshold that Democrats concede will be difficult to reach. They have yet to settle on the debt ceiling proposal itself, and for the strategy to succeed, Democrats would likely need to negotiate with a handful of mainstream Republicans to settle on a measure they could accept.
A handful of hard-right Republicans explicitly warned their colleagues on Tuesday not to go down that path. “House Republicans: don’t defect!” Senator Mike Lee of Utah wrote on Twitter.
Still, Democrats argue that the prospect of a successful effort could force House Republicans into a more acceptable deal. And Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen’s announcement on Monday that a potential default was only weeks away spurred Democratic leaders to act.
House Democratic leaders have for months played down the possibility of initiating a discharge petition as a way out of the stalemate. They are hesitant to budge from the party position, which Mr. Biden has articulated repeatedly, that Republicans should agree to raise the debt limit with no conditions or concessions on spending cuts.
But behind the scenes, they were simultaneously taking steps to make sure a vehicle was available if needed.
There were no signs on Tuesday of any momentum toward even a temporary resolution. Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, brushed aside the idea of putting off a confrontation by passing a short-term debt limit increase, telling reporters: “We should not kick the can down the road.”
And Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, reiterated that he intended to leave the negotiations to Mr. Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, again dashing the private hopes of some Democrats that the veteran Republican would ultimately cut a deal with them to allow the debt ceiling to be lifted, as he has done in the past.
“There is no solution in the Senate,” Mr. McConnell said.
The White House had no public comment on the discharge effort, according to Karine Jean-Pierre, the press secretary. Mr. Biden is scheduled next week to host Mr. McCarthy and other congressional leaders at the White House to discuss raising the debt limit. His goal at that meeting, a senior administration official said, will be to stress the importance of averting default and creating a separate negotiation to address other budget issues.
The discharge petition process can be time-consuming and complicated, so House Democrats who devised the strategy started early and carefully crafted their legislative vehicle. Insiders privately refer to the measure as a “Swiss Army knife” bill — one intended to be referred to every single House committee in order to keep open as many opportunities as possible for forcing it to the floor.
It would create a task force to help grandparents raising grandchildren, create a federal strategy for reducing earthquake risks, change the name of a law that governs stock trading by members of Congress, extend small business loans, protect veterans from the I.R.S., authorize a new Pentagon grant program to protect nonprofit organizations against terrorist attacks and more. The legislation was so broad and eclectic that it was referred to 20 committees, where it has sat idle for months. That was the point.
Mr. DeSaulnier’s intent was never to pass the elements of the bill, though he favors them all. It was to create what is known on Capitol Hill as a shell of a bill that would ultimately serve as the basis for a discharge petition — and a way out of the debt limit standoff.
“I wrote it in a way to be prepared,” said Mr. DeSaulnier, a former member of the Rules Committee who worked with Democratic procedural experts to craft legislation that could provide a debt-limit escape hatch. “I anticipated there would be these problems with the Republican caucus, whether it was abortion or the debt limit. I think it was the responsible thing as a legislator to do.”
Democrats say the beauty of Mr. DeSaulnier’s bill — which Republicans have ignored — is that it long ago passed the threshold of being held in committee for at least 30 days, the minimum length of time to initiate a discharge petition to force action on legislation. Even so, in a memo sent to members on Tuesday, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce analysis projected that even if Democrats were able to draw enough support for their plan and advance it without further delay, the measure could take until June 12 or 13 to clear Congress — many days beyond the earliest date Ms. Yellen has warned the debt limit could be reached.
Democrats said the fact that their bill would fall under the jurisdiction of so many committees gave them several options for moving forward.
Mr. DeSaulnier was picked to sponsor the measure because his low profile meant there was likely to be little attention to his bill. In contrast, any legislation introduced by Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee, would have drawn attention immediately, and Republicans might have been able to take action to derail it.
Discharge petitions have spurred action in the past by prompting House leaders to move on issues rather than lose control of the floor through a guerrilla legislative effort. But the procedure is rarely successful and has produced a law in only a handful of cases, including the approval of major bipartisan campaign finance legislation in 2002. Congressional leaders of both parties have been disdainful of such efforts, since they effectively wrest control of the House floor from the majority.
Democrats say that the current situation, with a default looming, showed that they were taking prudent precautions with Mr. DeSaulnier’s bill. Besides thwarting gridlock, the legislation says its purpose is also “to advance common-sense policy priorities.”
Catie Edmondson, Katie Rogers and Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.