- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

Eventually, the Senate had to vote to raise the debt ceiling. Waiting for the Senate to act, Treasury Secretary John Snow acknowledged that he had exhausted every financial option available to keep the checks from bouncing. Without an increase in the debt ceiling, the government would default on its debt.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist could not put it off another day. With the alternative — default — out of the question, the Senate acted responsibly by voting to raise the debt ceiling from $8.2 trillion to $9 trillion. As expected, the measure narrowly passed, 52-48.

Taking advantage of the out-of-power party’s traditional opportunity to bash the party in power for fiscal recklessness, every Democrat in the Senate opposed the debt-ceiling measure. In a genuinely sincere vote, buttressed by his eight years of opposition to congressional and presidential overspending, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn opposed it as well. Two other Republicans — Conrad Burns and John Ensign, both of whom are up for re-election and both of whom voted for the pork-infested transportation bill last year — also voted against raising the debt ceiling.

Since George W. Bush became president, the debt ceiling has been raised more than $3 trillion. The ceiling applies to publicly held debt and debt held by federal government accounts, such as the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. At Sept. 30, publicly held debt totaled $4.6 trillion, of which $736 billion was held by the Federal Reserve System. The debt held by government accounts totaled $3.3 trillion at the end of September.

The amount of publicly held debt owned by foreigners has more than doubled over the last four years, increasing from $1 trillion (36 percent of the total, excluding public debt held by the Fed) at the end of fiscal 2001 to more than $2 trillion (54 percent of the total) at the end of fiscal 2005. Two conclusions can be drawn. First, the share of publicly held debt owned by foreigners has increased by 50 percent (from 36 percent to 54 percent) over the last four fiscal years. Second, during the same period, more than 99.5 percent of the increase in the non-Fed publicly held debt has been purchased by foreign governments or foreign private investors.

Immediately before 52 of 55 Republican senators voted to raise the debt ceiling, all 55 voted against a worthy amendment sponsored by Max Baucus, the ranking member of the Finance Committee, to “require a study of debt held by foreigners.”

The Senate Web site reports that the debt-ceiling vote was completed at 11:17 AM. After lunch, the Republican-controlled Senate immediately went on an appropriations spree. At 1:36 PM, barely two hours after raising the ceiling, the Senate approved a $3.3 billion increase in funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. As Robert Novak recently reported, Mr. Coburn last week reminded his colleagues that “there is very limited authorization in the Constitution for us to be paying the heating bills of people in this country.” With six Republicans (Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Mike DeWine of Ohio) joining a unanimous Democratic caucus, the LIHEAP amendment passed 51-49.

The very next vote, completed 32 minutes later, added another $7 billion in 2007 to “increase the advance appropriations allowance to fund health, education, training and low-income programs.” It was sponsored by Mr. Specter, who acknowledged that the use of the “advance appropriations allowance” was a “gimmick.” More than half the Republican Senate caucus, including Majority Leader Frist, voted for the amendment. Only last weekend, at the Memphis straw poll of Republicans seeking the 2008 presidential nomination, Mr. Frist declared, “Now is the time to reaffirm our roots as the party of fiscal discipline.”

Eventually, at 7:18 PM Thursday, the Senate passed a 2007 budget resolution calling for $2.8 trillion in federal spending. That’s $1 trillion more than the $1.8 trillion spent in fiscal 2000. So, eight hours after the Senate Republican caucus raised the debt ceiling by $780 billion, the same group passed a budget that will require the debt ceiling to be raised before the end of the next fiscal year.

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