Congress is poised to lift the federal borrowing limit by as much as $1.8 trillion before the end of this year, a number large enough to avoid revisiting the matter next year when Democrats will have to defend their majority in midterm elections.
The Treasury is nearing the current debt ceiling of $12.1 trillion, and Congress must authorize raising the amount the United States can borrow to avoid the country going into default to its creditors.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that the House would combine legislation raising the debt limit with a bill that funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, greatly increasing the chances that the bill will clear Congress before the government can max out its credit card.
"We have already raised it in the House but we need to have a vehicle so that the Senate can vote on it, and it is our intention to have something on the Department of Defense bill next week," she said at a news conference.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Republicans will vote against increasing the debt limit.
"And we'll vote against it because of their trillion-dollar stimulus plan that hasn't worked. We'll vote against it because of all of this excessive spending that's in this bill right here, a 12 percent increase with 5,000 earmarks -- all of it pushing the debt to record heights," he said at a news conference.
"Listen, they have made a habit of taking defense appropriation bills, bills that fund the support of our troops, and adding on there the most distasteful things they can think of, trying to make sure they get it passed on the backs of our soldiers," he added. "It's a bad way of doing business."
But Democrats face a difficult task of folding the measure into the Defense spending bill, because House rules prevent additions of "air-dropped" items to legislation that has passed through both chambers. Democrats will need a two-thirds vote to overcome a likely Republican bid to strip the measure out of the spending bill.
Pelosi could convert the spending bill into a "message" to avoid the "air-dropped" problem but the bill would then be sent to the Senate where it would be open to a filibuster.
Republican Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Kevin Brady of Texas plan to introduce a bill by Friday that would make it harder for Congress to raise the debt limit by requiring a two-thirds vote instead of the current simple majority needed for passage.
With government spending brushing up against the debt limit right now, Democrats have decided they would rather face the music now for hiking the ceiling to accommodate a massive annual deficit than deal with it next year when Republicans could seize on the matter for political gain in the 2010 congressional election.
"We've incurred this debt. We have to pay our bills," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told Politico newspaper on Wednesday, confirming the $1.8 trillion figure.
A senior administration official did not endorse a specific increase in the debt ceiling but said Democratic leaders need to hit "a number that will get them through the election year. … This will definitely get them through."
"We just want to get it done," the official added.
A Treasury official added that the best estimate now is that the United States will hit the debt ceiling in mid-to-late December.
"However, the government's cash flows are volatile, and forecasting the precise date remains a difficult exercise. We expect Congress to raise the debt ceiling in a timely manner," the Treasury official said.
The move comes as fiscally-conscious lawmakers push for a special task force that could force speedy votes on deficit reduction in the next Congress.
"This is a defining moment for this chamber, this Congress and this administration," Conrad said Thursday on the Senate floor. "This is one of the most dramatic challenges to America's economic strength in this century."
Gregg said this "is not a theoretical problem -- it is directly in front of us." And he warned that "the nation will go bankrupt" if spending is not reined in.
They both argued that the political has failed and is failing to deal with this and that a bipartisan task force is the only answer -- one that would make recommendations that would get an up or down vote but not be subject to amendments. President Obama has been open to the idea in the past.
As lawmakers try to deal with a debt that nearly matches the annual U.S. economy, the House could vote as early as Thursday on a $446.8 billion year-end package that would provide up to a 10 percent increase of funding to more than a dozen Cabinet departments and agencies.
Fox News' Rich Edson, Jim Angle, Trish Turner, Chad Pergram and Fox Business' Peter Barnes contributed to this report.