WASHINGTON – A measure to suspend the nation’s legal limit on borrowing for nearly four months cleared a key vote in the House on Wednesday, as Republicans broadly endorsed a new tactic that would temporarily remove the threat of a potentially calamitous government default from their ongoing fight with Democrats over government spending.
The measure, which would set aside the legal debt ceiling and allow the government to borrow as needed to meet spending obligations through May 18, was adopted on a 285-144 vote.
Just before the vote, Democratic leaders in the Senate said they would accept the House measure without changes, and a Senate vote is expected as soon as next week. The White House has said President Obama will not stand in the way of the bill.
As a result, House passage apparently eliminates the possibility of an economy-rattling crisis next month, when the Treasury Department has said it will exhaust extraordinary measures put in place to extend its ability to borrow since the government hit its $16.4 trillion limit Dec. 31.
Without congressional action, the government would be unable to pay its bills, a scenario that would likely rock the world economy.
The House vote, however, does little to resolve Washington’s central debate over the size and scope of government. Congress faces new deadlines in a matter of weeks: deep automatic spending cuts set to take effect March 1, and the expiration March 27 of an appropriation measure keeping the government operating.
Opposition came from 33 Republican conservatives who said it was a mistake for the GOP to give up its most potent point of leverage in forcing Democrats to reduce spending.
One hundred and eleven Democrats also voted against the measure because they said the short-term fix would allow uncertainty to hover over a still-fragile economy.
They also said Republicans should not attach conditions to a bill that would allow the government to borrow money to meet obligations it has already incurred.
The GOP’s measure would impose a new requirement on Congress, key to winning support from a broad range of their own members: Both chambers of Congress must adopt a budget by April 15, as required by law, or have their congressional pay withheld until the start of the new Congress in 2015.
All we’re saying is: Congress, follow the law. Do your work. Budget, said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the party’s former vice presidential candidate, explaining the measure on the floor.
We owe our constituents more than that. We owe them solutions. And when both parties put their solutions on the table, then we can have a good debate about how we fix the problem, he said.
Republicans have in recent days rallied around the slogan, No Budget, No Pay, an effort to shift attention to the Senate’s failure to adopt a budget in nearly four years.
They hope their new pressure campaign could help reverse public opinion about who is to blame for gridlock over spending. Polls have indicated the public pins fault for Washington’s lurching crises on House Republicans.
Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Wednesday that her panel will, indeed, move to draft a budget blueprint this year.
Murray said the decision had been under discussions for weeks, long before the House moved. And she pledged to write a budget that addressed the problem of debt with a balanced approach that would protect government programs that help the middle class.
A Senate budget that would include higher taxes would sharply clash with a House plan that will be advanced later this year by Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee.
He has promised House conservatives a budget proposal that would balance within the next decade. That would likely require severe cuts, far deeper even than the budgets he has proposed for the past two years, already slammed by Democrats for their sharp spending reductions and their overhaul of Medicare. Those spending plans each took nearly 30 years to balance the budget.
Wednesday’s House vote represented a victory by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who had faced a series of embarrassing revolts from conservative members of his own party in recent weeks.
With the help of Ryan, a respected voice among fiscal hawks, Boehner was able to convince members at a somber three-day retreat in Virginia last week that the party must recognize the realities of a re-elected Democratic president and Senate.
In that environment, he argued the GOP should defuse the potentially politically damaging fight over the debt ceiling and instead use other threats, including the possibility of a government shutdown in April, to push for spending cuts.