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Congress gets 3½ months to run up debt

Provision tied to budget mandate

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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.

Indeed, the debt bill includes language that will begin to halt lawmakers' pay if they don't pass budgets through the House and Senate by April 15.

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.

The goal, Republicans said, was to create the space for both the House and Senate to write budgets, which will give voters a chance to evaluate the two parties' priorities.

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.

It has been four years since the Senate passed a budget, and House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, who drove the debt legislation, said this bill will change that.

"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.

The situation was reversed in the Senate, where all but one Democrat voted for the debt increase. Most Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, opposed it.

A spokesman for Mr. McConnell said Senate Republicans tried to add spending cuts to the bill but were defeated by Democrats, which made the bill unacceptable.

House Republicans, stung by the 2011 debt fight, argue that they have won a bigger victory this time by tying lawmakers' pay to their ability to pass budgets.

The idea has gained popularity in recent years and has become known as "no budget, no pay."

Under the bill, House and Senate lawmakers would stop getting paid if they haven't passed a bill through their own chambers by April 15. All of the money would be paid at the end of the congressional session — a way of trying to adhere to the 27th Amendment, which forbids Congress from "varying" its compensation within a session.

Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the lone Democrat to vote against the bill, was one of the chief sponsors of "no budget, no pay" — but he said he couldn't stomach the way this bill was written.

"If we are unable or unwilling to work in a bipartisan manner to pass a budget, we should not get paid. It's as simple as that," he said. "Unfortunately, the House bill combines 'no budget, no pay,' with an irresponsible provision that would allow us to continue spending recklessly for the next three months and still pay us at the end of the 113th Congress."

But his co-sponsor on "no budget, no pay," Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, voted for the bill and said he hopes it becomes a permanent requirement.

"While I was disappointed the Senate did not pass certain amendments that would have immediately reduced spending, 'no budget, no pay' is an important step forward toward transforming the budgeting process," he said.

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