WASHINGTON – House Republicans took a first step Tuesday toward raising the government's borrowing limit, angering Democrats by muscling the provision into next year's $417 billion defense spending (search) bill.
Inserting the language into the popular Pentagon bill lets lawmakers sidestep a direct vote on boosting the legal limit on government borrowing, now at $7.4 trillion. Many Republicans are eager to avoid such a specific vote as November's elections near, especially at a time of record annual federal deficits, and Democrats said they resented the ploy.
"I've seen this House duck and I've seen this House dodge, but this ... takes the cake," said Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C.
The provision added to the Pentagon (search) bill simply said, "The United States government shall take all steps necessary to guarantee the full faith and credit of the government."
When House-Senate bargainers write a compromise defense bill in coming weeks, Republicans are likely to rework the provision into one that boosts the federal debt ceiling (search) by hundreds of billions of dollars.
Republicans derailed a Democratic attempt to kill the provision by a party line 220-196 roll call. The chamber then voted 221-197 to put the language into the defense bill.
Raising the debt limit is considered mandatory because otherwise an unprecedented federal default could occur, raising interest rates and jarring the world economy.
"I didn't come to Washington to raise the debt," said Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan. But he said Republicans must be "pragmatic" because with the war against terrorists, "there is an increased demand on what the federal government is called upon to do."
Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., complained that the bill "that is supposed to be funding the most honorable and bravest Americans" was instead being used "by the sneakiest and most cowardly Americans to sneak through" a debt limit increase.
"Is there any shame left? Is there anything that you won't foul?" he said.
"That kind of language doesn't have any place around here," Tiahrt responded.
The current federal debt ceiling is expected to be reached later this summer. Democrats blame President Bush's tax cuts, while Republicans cite the weak economy and costs of war.
House rules let the chamber avoid a direct vote on raising the debt limit if Congress approves a federal budget for the coming year. But a House-Senate dispute over curbing tax cuts has made passage of a $2.4 trillion budget this year highly unlikely, forcing GOP leaders to find another strategy.
Congress' budget envisions raising the borrowing cap by $690 billion -- perhaps enough to provide enough cash for the government for nearly another year.
Administration officials have privately told lawmakers that as occurred under President Clinton, the Treasury Department (search) may be able to dip into cash accounts and delay a need for a debt ceiling increase until after the November elections. No one knows, however, whether that is a viable option.
Congress approved a $984 billion debt ceiling boost in May 2003, the largest ever, and a $450 billion increase in June 2002. Before that, the cap was not increased since 1997, thanks to the four-year string of annual budget surpluses under Clinton.
The Senate still must act on raising the debt limit.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said Tuesday he would not mind using the defense bill to raise the borrowing cap.