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Dems To Raise The Roof On Debt

January 20, 2010 - by Eric Naing

Of all the things Congress does every year, raising the federal debt limit is definitely the least popular. Unfortunately for them, the Democrats chose the day after their major rebuke in Massachusetts to do it. Are they gluttons for punishment, or just idealists pretending the Republican minority is as gentle and agreeable as they were during the Bush years?

Since 1917, the federal government has had to adhere to a debt limit. Year after year, Congress votes to increase the limit. The minority party will issue statements about runaway spending and the party in power will vote for the increase in the name of not shutting down government, but ultimately it gets done without too much acrimony.

But under the 111th Congress, things have changed.

Thanks in large part to Republican insistence that 60 votes be required to do virtually anything in the Senate, a fight in Congress broke out last year over a resolution to raise the limit (H.J.Res.45). To make a long story short, the House voted last April to raise the limit by $925 billion but the Senate couldn’t find 60 votes to do the same. As a compromise, Congress passed a short-term $290 billion increase (H.R.4314), raising the debt ceiling to $12.394 trillion, where it currently stands. It should be noted that under President Bush, Republicans voted to raise the debt limit by more than $6.4 trillion, and as these roll call votes from the 110th, 109th and 108th Congresses show, the Democrats did not insist that 60 senators were needed to do it.

Today, the Senate will begin debate to raise the limit to $13.029 trillion, with a vote expected next week. To make this vote more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Senate, an agreement reportedly has been worked out wherein President Obama will appoint members to a deficit reduction commission that would propose to Congress politically dangerous measures such as tax increases or spending cuts to reign in the debt.

Also in the mix is a plan to implement new “pay-go” legislation requiring any legislation dealing with mandatory spending or tax revenue to be budget neutral. The House passed this measure (H.R.2920) last year, but the Senate once again couldn’t find the votes needed to pass it.

As with seemingly everything under this Congress, the Senate’s near-universal 60-vote requirement is a major sticking point for the issue. All eyes will be on Sen. George Voinovioch [R, OH], the lone Republican senator to cross the isle and provide the 60th vote for the $290 billion stop-gap increase. Outspoken budget hawk Sen. Evan Bayh [D, IN] was the only Democratic senator to vote against the increase. Further complicating things is the election of Scott Brown, who would likely eliminate yet another Democratic vote in the Senate should he join the Senate in time to vote on the issue.

As a side note, if you check out the resolution you’ll notice that it has no sponsor. It makes sense that lawmakers wouldn’t want their name attached to such a politically toxic piece of legislation, but is it possible for a bill to pass without a sponsor? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. David Waldman over at Congress Matters, explains how this can happen.

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