WASHINGTON – A measure to suspend the nation’s legal limit on borrowing for nearly four months cleared a key vote Wednesday in the House, 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 to 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 on 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, on deep automatic spending cuts set to take effect on March 1 and the expiration of an appropriation measure keeping the government operating on March 27.
Opposition came from 33 Republican conservatives who said it was a mistake for the party 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.
Maine’s two House members, Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, split on the vote.
Michaud, D-2nd District, supported the bill. “While I would have preferred a longer-term and more strongly worded bill, this measure will avoid default and help force Congress to get serious about budgeting,” he said in a written statement.
Pingree, D-1st District, voted against the measure.
“Congresswoman Pingree believes we need more certainty, not more uncertainty, and simply delaying a decision on the debt ceiling for another three months is not going to give the economy and the market the certainty they need to keep the recovery going,” Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch said in an interview.
The Republican 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, while 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.
Michaud agreed, noting that he has co-sponsored similar legislation several times.
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, confirming a similar pledge made Sunday by Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat.
Murray characterized the decision as one that had been under discussion 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.
Schumer said that would mean a budget that would pair spending cuts with higher tax revenues.
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 that he has proposed for the past two years, which were slammed by Democrats for their sharp spending reductions and 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.
He argued that Republicans 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.
Still, the measure only passed because some Democrats joined Republicans in support. The 199 Republicans who backed the bill, while representing a majority of the party’s caucus, fell short of the 218 needed to ensure adoption.
Also Wednesday, Boehner called on the Senate to follow the House’s lead and adopt a budget that will balance within 10 years. He said the House will not agree in May to a long-term increase in the debt ceiling without an agreement that would significantly reduce deficits.
“It’s time for Congress to get serious about this,” he said.
– Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller contributed to this report.