WASHINGTON – Republicans pushed a $984 billion boost in federal borrowing through the Senate on Friday, sending President Bush history's biggest debt ceiling increase. Democrats said it was needed because of administration mishandling of the economy.
The 53-44 vote completed Congress' work on a measure that will let lawmakers avoid the politically sensitive issue until sometime next year, when another increase in borrowing authority will be necessary. Congress had breached its current $6.4 trillion limit on borrowing early this year, and the government has averted an unprecedented default only by having the Treasury Department (search) shift money from various funds it oversees.
Friday's vote had strong partisan overtones, with Democrats trying to link the need for vast new government borrowing to the record annual deficits that have emerged under Bush. Approval came just hours after lawmakers approved $330 billion in tax cuts through 2013 that Republicans said would nurture the economy but Democrats said would spawn even more red ink.
"That we have to borrow even more money to pay for their failed economic agenda ... is proof positive that their latest tax package is on the wrong economic track," Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., said of Republicans in a statement.
GOP senators defeated a pile of Democratic amendments, knowing that passage of any would have forced the House to reconsider the bill and prolonged the chance for Democrats to draw attention to the issue.
Democrats amendments included one that would have limited the debt increase to the same size as the tax bill, and forced Congress to consider new borrowing sometime this fall.
"It's nothing but political gamesmanship," Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., said of the Democratic efforts.
Bush was sure to sign the bill. Treasury Secretary John Snow (search) applauded its passage, a few days after warning that his department had depleted its ability to find more cash.
"Today's action prevents uncertainty that would adversely impact our economic recovery," Snow said in a written statement. "I applaud the leaders and members of Congress who voted to preserve the full faith and credit of the U.S. government."
This year's deficit is expected to exceed $300 billion for the first time, and shortfalls are projected into the future for as far as analysts can see. The government ran four consecutive surpluses at the end of the Clinton administration, and while Democrats blame the return of red ink on a series of Bush tax cuts, Republicans blame the faltering economy and the costs of confronting terrorists.
During next year's campaigns for the White House and Congress, Democrats hope to point to the mounting federal debt as a symbol of Bush's inability to cure the economy's woes. Republicans say the voters will realize that Bush was wise to make the budget's problems secondary to his focus on economic and security problems.
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., was the only Republican to oppose the debt limit extension. Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana and Zell Miller of Georgia were the only Democrats to support it, as did Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt.
Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass.; Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John Edwards, D-N.C., missed the vote.
The bill is H.J. Res. 51.