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.

“I would choose to dig in now and know what we’re going to get when we raise that debt ceiling,” he said. “I think that we’ve got to step up and take responsibility for this generational theft. I don’t know what it’s going to take to wake Washington up.”

The bill passed at least a month before the government was going to bump into the $16.39 trillion debt limit. For a Congress that has lurched from deadline to deadline, it was a startling act of planning.

And there are teeth in this bill. House Republicans wrote in provisions that will begin blocking lawmakers from getting paid if they haven’t passed a budget by April 15. That was aimed squarely at Senate Democrats, who control the upper chamber but haven’t passed a federal budget in nearly four years.

Those provisions raise constitutional questions because the 27th Amendment bans a Congress from “varying” its own pay once it has been sworn in, and some scholars argue that withholding pay would violate that.

Republican leaders dismissed that, saying they wrote the law so that the money would go into escrow and everyone would get paid at the end of the Congress no matter what. With both chambers vowing to pass a budget, though, that could make any court challenge moot.

The bill doesn’t name a debt limit. Instead, it waives the limit from now until May 18, meaning all new borrowing during that time will be legal. A new debt limit will be established on May 19.

During the period from late January to May 18 in 2012, the government added $476 billion in new borrowing. But this year that total could be much higher since the Treasury Department has been using work-arounds to delay bumping up against the debt ceiling for most of January, and that money will have to be replenished.

The bill produced some fascinating splits. While Mr. Reid welcomed it, Democratic leaders in the House blasted it, saying it was too short.

“Three months? Where is the certainty in three months?” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “We should not even be having a debate. There should be no doubt the full faith and credit of the United States will be honored.”

Meanwhile, Republicans were left trying to find their footing and hoping it would come in the upcoming budget fight.

The Republicans hit their high-water mark in August 2011, when they attached $900 billion in discretionary spending caps and about $1 trillion in future spending sequesters to a debt increase.

But since then, Republicans have struggled to find unity, with some members backing higher spending and tax increases, others opposed to the automatic spending cuts to defense and still others wanted a government shutdown in order to force cuts.

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