Published August 01, 2011
The House passed a bipartisan deal to raise the debt ceiling in an 11th-hour vote Monday despite grumbling from liberals and conservatives, who stretched the bounds of rhetoric to express their distaste for it.
The 269-161 vote was also notable for marking Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' return to the House for the first time since January when she was critically injured in a shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz. Giffords was met by loud applause on the House floor and voted yes.
The bill now goes to the Senate, which is expected to vote on it at noon Tuesday -- with hours to go until the Treasury's deadline for action expires.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, emerging briefly Monday afternoon to speak with reporters, said he was not ready "declare victory yet." But he and his GOP counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell, expressed confidence they could push the bill through "quickly."
"We need to send this to President Obama as soon as we can," Reid said.
Congress has until the end of the day Tuesday to raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling in order for the Treasury to be able to continue paying all its bills come Wednesday. Doing nothing would risk defaulting on the nation's debt for the first time.
Giffords surprised many of her colleagues when she showed up for the House vote.
"We are all privileged to call her colleague. Some of us are very privileged to call her friend," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said on the House floor.
Giffords' office issued a statement from the congresswoman after the vote, underscoring the importance of raising the debt limit.
"I have closely followed the debate over our debt ceiling and have been deeply disappointed at what's going on in Washington," Giffords said. "After weeks of failed debate in Washington, I was pleased to see a solution to this crisis emerge. I strongly believe that crossing the aisle for the good of the American people is more important than party politics.
"I had to be here for this vote. I could not take the chance that my absence could crash our economy."
House Speaker John Boehner had to rely on a blend of Republicans and Democrats to push the bill through his chamber, with some conservatives unhappy about key provisions in the compromise.
House Democrats don't want to carry Republicans' water, though. Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., said earlier Monday that every Democrat who votes for the bill takes a Republican off the hook -- he urged colleagues to wait until Republicans put at least 200 votes on the board "before we give them cover."
Liberal Democrats are unhappy in part because the first phase of the plan relies solely on spending cuts -- $900 billion worth of them.
The second phase of the plan relies on a special committee to come up with roughly $1.5 trillion in additional deficit reduction. Both sides are wary about what that process could produce, in terms of entitlement reform and tax reform.
And conservatives are particularly agitated about a provision that would enact sweeping defense cuts if the committee's recommendations are not approved by the end of the year. Plus some are peeved that, while the package would call for a vote on a balanced-budget amendment, it would not require its approval in order for the debt ceiling to be increased.
Still, a number of big-name lawmakers were getting in line behind the bill.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who said he is "very concerned" about the defense spending provision, nevertheless said he will "strongly support" this package.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., echoed that sentiment.
"We're very optimistic we're going to do well," McConnell said.
In the second phase of the plan, the debt ceiling will be raised by $1.5 trillion if the committee recommendations are approved by the end of the year. The size of the increase could be smaller if the approved cuts are smaller.
Each of the GOP and Democratic leaders in the chambers will nominate lawmakers to the 12-member committee to report back in the fall. The vote, to take place by Dec. 23, would be an up-or-down vote with no amendments allowed.
President Obama said everything will be on the table and both parties will find some of the cuts objectionable.
"Despite what some Republicans have argued, I believe that we have to ask the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations to pay their fair share by giving up tax breaks and special deductions. Despite what some in my own party have argued, I believe that we need to make some modest adjustments to programs like Medicare to ensure that they're still around for future generations. That's why the second part of this agreement is so important," Obama said from the White House briefing room.
Party leaders in both chambers were presenting the agreement to their rank-and-file Monday ahead of the votes.
Several objections are expected, including from Republican defense hawks who don't want the military gutted and from the Congressional Black Caucus, which called the deal a "sugar-coated Satan sandwich."
Boehner told his Republican caucus on a Sunday night conference call that the deal isn't done yet. But Boehner said it does not violate GOP principles.
"We got 98 percent of what we wanted," he said adding that the framework cuts more spending than it raises the debt limit. It also caps future spending to limits in the growth of government.
"It would also guarantee the American people the vote they have been denied in both chambers on a balanced budget amendment, while creating, I think, some new incentives for past opponents of a BBA to support it," Boehner said.
A "trigger" in the plan would enact across-the-board cuts if the joint committee doesn't reach at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. If that happens, Obama would be allowed to request a $1.2 trillion debt increase and Congress would have to disapprove it subject to a presidential veto.
According to a Power Point presentation presented by Boehner to the caucus, roughly half of the proposal's automatic cuts would come from defense and half from Medicare.
While the trigger is supposed to hurt as incentive to get Congress to act, other programs like Social Security, Medicaid, veterans benefits and military pay would be off-limits.
House Republicans spent nearly an hour on the conference call with Boehner.
But one House GOP lawmaker who told Fox News he intends to vote against the plan emerged from the call saying he doubted it was 98 percent in the GOP's favor.
"The minority leader's on board," said the lawmaker who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. "Really? Nancy's cool with only 2 percent? She's that stupid?"
The lawmaker added that Obama's health care law was protected while "the military got screwed," saying the across-the-board trigger between defense and Medicare left Medicaid off the table. The theory was advanced that the health care law will be achieved by pushing greater numbers of recipients of government health care benefits onto Medicaid.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a fierce critic of the entire process, did not outright oppose the legislation but also expressed his disappointment in the chain of events that led to the 11th-hour deal. He said he had wanted seven days to review the bill.
"Republicans offered budgets and bills with trillions more in spending cuts than contained in the current legislation," said Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also faulted the 11th hour negotiating but said, "We have settled on a reasonable compromise that all sides should immediately support and which I intend to vote for."