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Senate Debt Timeline Leaves Razor-Thin Margin For Error

Debt Default

First Posted: 07/27/11 10:25 AM ET Updated: 09/26/11 06:12 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- Unless Republicans in the Senate drop opposition to Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) plan to raise the nation's debt limit, the soonest the Senate can pass a bill to stave off default will be Sunday -- just two days before time is set to run out.

That's because of Senate rules, a senate aide familiar with the planing explained.

In order to vote to end debate on a measure, a senator must file for cloture, and the rules require an "intervening day" for the request to "ripen." In this case, the Senate is planning to use an existing measure already on the floor as a vehicle and attach the debt bill as an amendment.

Reid is expected to file for cloture on that motion to proceed to the "substitute amendment" Wednesday, a plan he's expected to detail at a press conference Wednesday.

With an intervening day on Thursday, the Senate could have its first cloture vote -- with a 60-vote threshold to end debate on the motion to proceed -- on Friday.

Senate rules also require 30 hours between each step in the voting process, unless senators unanimously agree to waive the time. That delay would set up an up or down, majority vote on the amendment for Saturday.

If the debt amendment passes, the underlying vehicle would then also have to be passed 30 hours later, also by a simple majority, putting that vote somewhere later on Sunday.

All the intervening time can be dispensed with if senators agree unanimously to waive it, but several Republicans have declared they oppose raising the debt ceiling at all, making such agreements less likely.

While the Treasury Department has warned that its ability to borrow to pay its bills will expire at the end of the day on Aug. 2, some reports suggest that thanks to unexpectedly robust revenue, the government won't begin defaulting until several days later.

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