WASHINGTON – Congress sent President Bush (search) an $800 billion boost in the federal borrowing limit on Thursday, spotlighting how the budget has lurched out of control in recent years and how hard it will be to afford future initiatives.
The House approved the measure by a near party-line 208-204 vote as White House and bipartisan congressional bargainers moved to the verge of agreement on a year-end spending package expected to total $388 billion. Negotiators said just a handful of issues remained unresolved, and a package might be ready for votes by late Friday.
With the government facing imminent default because it has depleted its authority to borrow money, the debt limit bill would pump up the federal borrowing cap to $8.18 trillion. That is 70 percent the size of the entire U.S. economy, and more than $2.4 trillion higher than the debt Bush inherited upon taking office in 2001.
Republicans said they were being responsible because the increased borrowing will let the government pay Social Security (search) benefits and its other bills. They blamed Democratic spending for the problem, and accused them of playing politics by opposing the measure.
"Let's not use our elderly as political pawns in trade for a seven-second sound bite back home," said Rep. Kevin Brady (search), R-Texas.
Democrats said the red ink was due to GOP tax cuts and their refusal to require budget savings to pay for tax reductions or spending increases. They accused Republicans of passing the buck to future generations.
"I want someone to explain to me how it can be moral for a father to stick his kids with his bills," said Rep. Gene Taylor (search), D-Miss.
Lawmakers hope to end their postelection session, which began Tuesday, by passing both the spending and debt-limit measures and possibly an intelligence agency overhaul by this weekend.
Negotiators spent Thursday clearing away final disputes on the massive spending bill. They agreed to $577 million, the same as last year, to continue developing a nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, one lawmaker said.
Remaining problems included an effort by some legislators to curb Bush's plan to contract out federal jobs to private businesses, as well as a plan to pay for some of the bill's increases by cutting unspent defense funds.
The bill would grant increases to such priorities as veterans' health care and the FBI and will probably contain thousands of home-district projects.
Hewing to Bush's demands to curb domestic spending, it also would cut grants for local water improvements and research supported by the National Science Foundation, while holding the federal subsidy for Amtrak to $1.2 billion, the same as this year.
Aid to help refugees in Sudan's war-torn Darfur (search) province would be $404 million, including $93 million to be transferred from Iraq reconstruction money that is being spent at a snail's pace.
Spending-bill bargainers also sorted through a stack of policy changes that lawmakers and lobbyists were trying to shove into one of the last measures Congress will approve this year.
Congressional aides said they believed a milk subsidy extension sought by Midwesterners and an effort to repeal required country-of-origin labels for meat would not make the final bill. Also thwarted was a drive to ease rules designed to protect endangered species from pesticides, the aides said.
The spending measure, covering the government budget year that started Oct. 1, is an amalgamation of nine separate bills financing all federal agencies except the Pentagon and the Homeland Security Department.
The GOP-led Senate approved the debt limit increase on Wednesday, 52-44, almost strictly along party lines.
The fight over raising the debt limit has become a staple of the Bush years, which will have now seen three such increases and two consecutive record annual deficits.
The government reached the current $7.38 trillion cap last month, paying its bills since with investments from a civil service retirement account, which it plans to repay. Even so, Republican leaders postponed the showdown vote until after the election, realizing Democrats would use the issue to highlight the red ink of the Bush years.