Republican strategy switch clears the way for debt hike

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Acting well before the deadline and with rare bipartisan unity, the House voted Wednesday to waive the federal debt ceiling for the next four months as Republicans retreated from their insistence that any raising of the ceiling be matched dollar-for-dollar with spending cuts.

But House Republicans fought a rear-guard action, attaching provisions designed to force the Senate to pass a federal budget for the first time since 2009 — a move Democrats deemed a “gimmick,” but which Republicans said might finally force the major debate on spending and taxes they have been seeking.

“We’re sending a message to the Democrat-controlled Senate: It’s time to do your job,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

Indeed, even as the House was advancing its bill, new Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, announced that her panel will write a budget and send it to the Senate floor, where it is guaranteed a debate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the Republican provision tying lawmakers’ pay to their ability to pass a budget was “a gimmick,” but said it was a small price to pay to get Republicans to retreat on their debt-limit demands.

“This bill surrenders the hostage Republicans have taken in the past by decoupling the full faith and credit of the United States from cuts to Social Security and Medicare, or anything else,” Mr. Reid said.

He said it sets a precedent that Congress no longer will use the debt limit to try to force spending cuts anywhere — a precedent both Mr. Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said was established in the 2011 debt deal, but which most in the party now appear ready to ditch.

The White House said President Obama will not block the bill from becoming law.

The move marks a rethinking for Republicans, who have been reeling after election victories in November for Mr. Obama, an expanded Democratic majority in the Senate and a thinning of the Republican edge in the House.

Mr. Obama has won tax-rate increases this year and now will get an extension of debt authority, though for a shorter period than he wanted.

Even though he reversed himself on the debt, Mr. Boehner said the trade was worth it because it has forced the Senate to plan to write a budget, which he said means they can begin to look for common ground.

“I’m glad they’re going to join the debate, but it’s time to get serious about how over the next 10 years we balance this budget,” he said. “If both chambers have a budget, Democrat budget in the Senate, Republican budget in the House, now we’ve got competing visions. Out of those visions, we’re going to find some common ground.”

The bill passed by a 285-144 vote with 199 Republicans and 86 Democrats approving it, making it one of the most bipartisan spending votes in the chamber in some time.

Still, a rump group of 33 Republicans joined 111 Democrats in opposition. The Republicans objected to another debt increase, and Democrats said a three-month extension wasn’t good enough.

Rep. Scott DesJarlais, Tennessee Republican, who voted against the bill, said he understands the need to try to push the Senate to act, but he said waiving the debt limit just puts off a discussion that could be happening now.

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