Chastened by its last brush with the debt limit, Congress on Thursday approved a waiver allowing the government to run up as much debt as it needs over the next 3½ months — but senators also prodded themselves to finally write a budget for the first time in four years.
Some analysts have raised questions about the constitutionality of withholding salaries, which appears to conflict with the 27th Amendment. But senators brushed aside those concerns, hoping to make the budget deadline so they never have to face the penalty, and focusing instead on the debt-limit increase, which they said staved off another last-minute showdown.
“A short-term solution is better than another imminent, manufactured crisis,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said of the bill, which was approved by a 64-34 vote.
The measure passed the House last week and now goes to President Obama, who has said he will not block it from becoming law.
The federal government is bumping up against its $16.39 trillion debt limit, and the Treasury Department is using extraordinary measures to delay hitting that level. If the limit is breached, the government would instantly have to cut spending by as much as 40 percent.
Congress usually sets a dollar amount for the debt limit, but this time House Republicans took a different approach. They said the government can add debt up through May 18, and at that point the debt limit will be adjusted to include whatever spending has taken place — likely to be an extra $450 billion, based on previous years’ history.
In 2011, House Republicans and Mr. Obama brought the country to the brink of a debt crisis when they couldn’t agree on a way to increase the borrowing limit. In the end, they struck a deal to allow more than $2 trillion more in immediate debt authority in exchange for an equal amount of cuts over 10 years.
Those cuts included the automatic spending “sequesters” with which Congress is still grappling.
“Senate Democrats are now required to do their job for the American people and pass a budget, or lose their pay,” he said.
The debt increase marks a major strategy shift for Mr. Boehner, who in 2011 vowed to demand a dollar of spending cuts for every dollar of new debt authority granted to Mr. Obama.
This bill doesn’t include any spending cuts.
Mr. Boehner powered the plan through the House last week with the support from the vast majority of Republicans, while most Democrats voted against it.