The House on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected President Obama's request for a "clean" bill to raise the government's borrowing limit, signaling that any increase will instead have to be coupled with some sort of spending cuts.
All sides agree that the debt ceiling likely will be raised, but the GOP orchestrated the 318-97 vote to prove to Mr. Obama that his preferred option — a simple bill to raise the debt ceiling — cannot pass. Democrats decried the exercise as political grandstanding, calling it "not serious."
But it's the second time in two weeks that one chamber of Congress has taken a vote both sides knew would end in failure, and appears to be part of a growing trend as the House, under Republican control, and the Senate, under Democratic control, seek to show the limits of what each can pass.
"I consider defeating an unconditional increase to be a success," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, Michigan Republican. "It sends a clear and critical message that the Congress has finally recognized we must immediately begin to rein in America's affection for deficit spending."
In the vote, 236 Republicans and 81 Democrats opposed the debt ceiling increase, while 97 Democrats voted in favor of raising the limit without conditions. Seven Democrats voted "present."
Republicans brought the bill to the floor under rules that blocked amendments, and would have required a two-thirds vote to pass.
Federal law sets a limit on the total dollar amount the country can be in debt — akin to a credit card limit — and the government last month bumped up against that level, $14.3 trillion, or nearly the size of all U.S. economic activity this year.
The doomed bill would have raised the debt limit by $2.4 trillion, to $16.7 trillion.
The Treasury Department is paying bills by using accounting techniques, but by early August the debt limit must be raised or else the government will have to suspend about 40 percent of all payments.
Earlier this year, Mr. Obama and many fellow Democrats demanded exactly the kind of "clean" debt increase Republicans put on the floor, but by Tuesday some minds had changed.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer said the House "ought to vote for this," though he said he was voting against it because it would give ammunition to Republicans in next year's election.
"This is not an honest debate. This is not an honest proposal," Mr. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said. "If we vote for it, ho-ho, guess what? You're for raising the debt limit without any fiscal discipline."
At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said failing to raise the debt limit "would be calamitous," and pointed to then-President Reagan, who shared that same opinion when he pushed for a debt-ceiling increase in 1983.
"The president looks forward to an agreement on deficit reduction, and to Congress doing what it must do, which is to vote to raise the debt ceiling," Mr. Carney said.
Mr. Obama has tapped Vice President Joseph R. Biden to lead negotiations with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders to try to hammer out an agreement on long-term debt reduction, which could form the basis for a deal — if they can agree on a plan.
Republicans are insisting on spending cuts, while Democrats want to see tax increases included.
Republicans defended their decision to bring a doomed bill to the floor in order to send a signal to the White House.
And message-sending votes have become standard for Congress this year, particularly in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid has used the tactic to try to put certain legislation out of bounds.
Last week, Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, forced a vote to reject House Republicans' 2012 budget, defeating it 57-40.
Senate Democrats have not written their own budget — which the GOP said marked the first time in history that the chamber has brought the House budget to the floor without having their own alternative — but Mr. Reid wanted to draw a line putting the House plan, with its proposed changes to Medicare, off the table.
Republicans responded by forcing a vote on Mr. Obama's own budget, submitted in February, which the Senate rejected 97-0.
Earlier this year, Mr. Reid held another vote on a House spending plan for 2011 in order to prove that the upper chamber didn't have the votes to pass the $61 billion in spending cuts the GOP was seeking.
• Dave Boyer contributed to this article.
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