What is the debt ceiling?

Janet L. Yellen handles some paperwork as she sits at a desk.
Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has warned about the consequences of failing to raise the debt limit. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
7 min

House Republicans locked the Biden administration in a standoff over a deadline to raise the national debt ceiling by early June, or risk fiscal calamity. Negotiators reached a deal with just days left before a potential default that could send the country into a recession. Now, Congress has to pass it. Here is a look at what the debt ceiling is and what could happen if Congress doesn’t pass the bill in time.

What to know about the U.S. debt ceiling

The latest: The House voted to pass a debt ceiling deal as lawmakers rush to avert a disastrous government default on June 5, sending the bill to the Senate. See how each member voted here. If the debt ceiling isn’t raised by the deadline, here’s what a government default means and the payments at risk. Here are the negotiators who have been working toward a debt ceiling deal.

Understanding the debt ceiling fight: Biden and the House Republican leadership have been on a collision course over the national debt limit. In this comic, see how hitting the debt ceiling could unleash chaos. Here’s when the debt ceiling battle could end.

What is at stake? Invoking the 14th Amendment to dodge the debt limit is risky, White House officials say, although Biden has floated it as an option. If the debt limit is breached, Biden warned that it could send the U.S. economy into a free fall. The debt ceiling breach could wipe out 8 million jobs, a recent analysis found. Amid consumer anxiety over the uncertainty, financial experts warn against making fear-based decisions.