Acknowledging that the U.S. must continue to borrow to keep the government open, Senate Democrats on Thursday pushed through a $1.9 trillion increase in the nation's debt limit.
The vote, along partisan lines, will boost the government's total borrowing power to a staggering $14.3 trillion.
Just a day after President Obama called on Congress to freeze much non-defense spending in future years, Senate Democrats turned back a bipartisan amendment to the debt-ceiling bill that would limit all future domestic discretionary spending - in both defense and social programs - to 2 percent annual increases. But they did attach pay-as-you-go or "pay-go" rules they said should help Congress members impose some fiscal discipline on themselves.
The overall debt measure passed 60-39, barely achieving the 60-vote supermajority Democrats and Republicans agreed would be needed to advance the measure. All 60 votes in support came from the Democrats' caucus, and the measure succeeded because Sen.-elect Scott Brown from Massachusetts has not yet been sworn in to give Republicans a 41st vote to sustain a filibuster.
It's the third time since Mr. Obama took office that Democrats have had to raise the debt, and Democrats sought such a large increase so they wouldn't have to have another politically troublesome vote later this year, closer to congressional elections.
By comparison, the country's debt stood at $5.7 trillion when President George W. Bush took office, and reached $10.6 trillion when he left eight years later.
The debt increase will now go back to the House, where its path has been aided by the pay-go rules the Senate approved.
"We're going to bring about in this country something that people can understand. They're going to understand that we're going to proceed in this body like they do paying their car payment, their housing payment," said Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
But Republicans said they doubt spending will be constrained because the new rules are full of holes.
"If they will rename this Swiss-cheese-go, I may vote for it," said Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, drawing a rebuke from Mr. Reid, who said the matter was too serious for joking.
The amendment by Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, and Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, to limit federal spending increases to 2 percent per year failed when it achieved just 56 votes - four short of the 60-vote threshold both sides had agreed on. But in gaining the support of 39 Republicans, 16 Democrats and one independent, backers showed there's strong support for limits.
Democrats who were opposed bristled at the notion they had rejected Mr. Obama's spending freeze, saying the amendment they were voting on wasn't the same. "It took a sledgehammer or an ax to programs like defense that shouldn't be necessary," Mr. Reid said.
Mr. Obama has proposed a three-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending beginning in fiscal 2011. It would exempt defense, veterans, homeland security and some foreign-affairs spending.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said "drastic action might be necessary" to follow through on that freeze. She said she would support making cuts to defense spending, and pointed to Republicans, such as Sen. John Cain, who have said there is waste that can be cut from the Pentagon budget.
"While we all want to support our men and women in uniform - and I don't think they should be subjected to the freeze, the men and women in uniform, our national defense and our veterans - I don't think that we have to protect military contractors," she said.
The new pay-go rules will require that most spending increases or tax cuts be "paid for" elsewhere in the budget by tax increases or cuts to other programs. If the rules are broken, automatic cuts would take effect. The rules would become part of the law, replacing the more-lax chamber rules Congress has imposed on itself, but often waived or evaded when a crunch-time vote came.
Earlier this week, the Senate rejected a bipartisan proposal to create a debt commission, which would have been tasked with proposing a package of reforms to reduce the huge debt level. The proposal would have required Congress to vote on the package as a whole, in theory making it easier to swallow spending cuts and tax increases together.
After that vote failed, Mr. Obama said he would create a commission by executive order to try to recommend solutions. But that panel would not have the force of law to compel Congress to vote on the recommendations.
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