GOP reverses course, kicks debt extension down the road

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House Republicans backed away from threats of a government shutdown on Wednesday, passing a bill that pushes a debt crisis off until at least the middle of May to give all sides more space to negotiate broader tax and spending deals.

The move marks a major reversal from the GOP’s earlier demand than any new debt be matched dollar for dollar with new spending cuts.

In order to try to make that easier for conservatives to swallow, Republican leaders attached a provision that holds lawmakers’ pay hostage until they pass a budget this year — a move that puts the measure in legal jeopardy, since it could conflict with the Constitution’s ban on altering lawmakers’ pay to try to force them to take action.

“Real simple — no budget, no pay,” said Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, as he tried to sell the plan to fellow House members on Wednesday.

The bill passed 285-144 with substantial support from Democrats.

Senate Democrats said they’ll pass the bill and send it on to President Obama, who has signaled he would sign it. It represents a significant victory for them, since it does not include any offsetting spending cuts.

But many House Democrats still objected, saying it is too short of an extension to provide the certainty the economy needs.

“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.”

The pay provisions are complex, and Republicans tried to write them to conform to the Constitution’s 27th Amendment, which prohibits one Congress from “varying” its own compensation.

If either chamber doesn’t pass a budget by April 15, the salaries for that house’s members are put in escrow. The money is paid out either once lawmakers pass a budget or, even if they never do pass one, it will be paid out at the end of the Congress. The GOP drafters of the provision said that meant they haven’t altered salaries.

The money would not accrue interest because that would then be an adjustment of pay, which would be unconstitutional, Republicans said.

Likewise, the debt extension is carefully drawn. It doesn’t set a new debt limit but waives the current $16.39 trillion ceiling through May 18, meaning all new borrowing during that time will be allowed.

Still, that’s a major reversal from the past two years, when the GOP said any new borrowing authority should be a chance to force cuts.

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

But since then, the GOP has struggled to find unity, with some members backing more spending and tax increases, others opposed the automatic spending cuts to defense, and still others wanting to see a government shutdown in order to force cuts.

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