Punctuated by the surprise return of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, House Republicans and Democrats united Monday to avert a debt crisis, pushing through an increase of up to $2.4 trillion in new borrowing authority, imposing instant spending limits and setting up another five months of debate over making even deeper cuts or raising taxes.
The 269-161 vote was more comfortable than many observers had predicted, and sends the bill to the Senate, where lawmakers were rallying behind the proposal and planning to vote Tuesday, just ahead of the deadline when the Treasury Department will no longer be able to prevent bumping up against the government’s $14.29 trillion borrowing limit.
Republicans said the vote ensures the national conversation remains focused on spending cuts, and said they didn’t violate any of the principles they laid out. Democrats, meanwhile, said they managed to fight off the push for cuts to Social Security and Medicare — at least for now.
The deal marks the first time that spending cuts have been attached to what usually has been routine business of raising the borrowing limit.
“The big win here for us, and for the American people, is there are no tax hikes,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.
Monday’s vote ends a bruising few months for House members, who have fought bitterly over the size and shape of spending cuts. All sides say they want to bring down record deficits and bring the debt under control, but beyond that there is little agreement.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and President Obama, either in person or through their go-betweens, traded offers and plans for weeks, and at one point appeared poised to accept a bigger deal totaling some $4 trillion in deficit reduction, including tax increases and changes to entitlement programs such as Social Security or Medicare.
But opposition from both political ends scuttled that bargain and spurred 10 days of frantic activity that culminated late Sunday in final legislation.
The House floor vote had been in doubt, with many Democrats withholding their votes as they watched to see where the tally would lead. But that all changed with Mrs. Giffords’ arrival on the floor to cast her first vote since January, when she suffered a catastrophic head wound during the Tucson, Ariz., shooting at a town-hall meeting she was hosting.
Her appearance prompted a tremendous applause that ran for minutes. As the clapping continued, Democrats who had been holding out cast their votes, and the tally shot way past the majority mark guaranteeing passage.
Mrs. Giffords, wearing short hair and glasses, voted in favor of the debt increase.
Overall, Democrats split their votes with 95 in favor and 95 opposed, while Republicans were overwhelmingly supportive, 174-66.
Running 74 pages, the bill amounts to a $32.4 billion debt increase per page, for a total possible debt increase of $2.4 trillion.
On the cuts side, it instantly imposes discretionary spending limits for the next decade, for savings of $917 billion, and sets up a congressional committee that would be charged with finding an additional $1.5 trillion in savings or new revenue.
While complaining of the predicament they found themselves in, the threat of Tuesday’s deadline pushed many to vote for the compromise.
“Default for the United States of America is not an option,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.
Democratic opponents, though, said the deal puts their priorities at risk over the long term, with no guarantee they win any concessions on higher taxes or broad defense spending cuts.
Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, said her party gave away too much in the deal and were held “hostage” by conservative Republicans who refused to bargain in good faith.
“I’m very disappointed that our negotiators weren’t tough enough,” she said. “So here we are today with some of the worst public policy that I think could have ever been made in the history of this institution, where a lot of [vulnerable] people are going to be hurt.”
Some Democrats said they wished the president would reject the deal and instead unilaterally declare he was raising the debt ceiling, citing the 14th Amendment’s guarantee that the public debt cannot be called into question. The White House and constitutional scholars have said they don’t think the language in the amendment grants Mr. Obama that authority.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who worked both House and Senate Democrats for votes at the Capitol, said he understood the frustration many of them had.
“I would be frustrated if I was sitting there as well and that we were taken down to the wire on this,” he told reporters. “But the truth of the matter is, there is a sort of sword of Damocles hanging over everyone’s head — this is the debt limit.”
Both sides did win dearly held concessions.
Democrats structured the deal so that the new debt limit will last into 2013, which means they avoid having a repeat of the bloody debate of the past five months until after the 2012 election. They also managed to keep spending cuts to a minimum in the near-term, allowing just $7 billion in real-dollar discretionary spending cuts in 2012 and $3 billion more in 2013.
Republicans, meanwhile, won most of the arguments over spending principles: The agreement lacks specific tax increases, and would reduce deficits by more than it raises the debt. The GOP also said imposing spending caps is a historic achievement that will pay dividends on lower spending over the next decade.
Across the Capitol, the Senate appeared to be headed toward comfortable passage Tuesday as most senators said they were swallowing hard and voting to avoid disastrous consequences the administration said would ensue if the debt limit isn’t increased: possible suspension of payments to Social Security beneficiaries and veterans, and a downgrade of the U.S. debt.
Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, told colleagues that every percentage-point increase in interest rates would mean an additional $1.3 trillion in interest payments.
That means a 2 percent interest rate jump — which could happen if the government defaults — would end up wiping out all of the possible savings in the debt deal.