Republicans sped legislation through the US House of Representatives to suspend for nearly four months a requirement for the US Congress to approve a higher limit on the US’ borrowing, backing away from an immediate battle with second-term US President Barack Obama and a possible first-ever default on the country’s obligations.
Until changing course, Republicans had been threatening to demand dollar-for-dollar spending cuts to match the increase in the nation’s borrowing limit.
At issue is US debt — nearly US$16.5 trillion and rising fast — the cumulative amount the country owes as a result of routinely spending more than it collects in taxes. The law requires that Congress approve raising the amount the government can borrow to pay its obligation as the debt exceeds the previous limit.
The House passed the measure on Wednesday by a 285 to 144 vote, a bipartisan showing on an initiative brought by majority Republicans. The Democratic-controlled US Senate is expected to approve the debt bill as early as today or perhaps next week, and send it to Obama for his signature.
The White House welcomed the legislation rather than face the threat of a first-ever default at the dawn of the president’s second term in the White House, and spokesman Jay Carney pointedly noted a “fundamental change” in strategy by the Republicans.
Raising the debt ceiling once occurred largely as a matter of legislative course. However, in 2011, a fight over the borrowing limit led to the first downgrading of the US debt in the country’s history, despite a last-minute deal that saw both Obama and the Republican opposition give ground.
If the debt cap is not raised, the US government would default on its obligations by as early as Feb. 15, the US Treasury said.
With the debt ceiling issue back front and center in Washington, Democrats criticize Republicans for using it as a tool to push their attempts to cut social programs and require a fight over the debt every few months.
The House Republicans’ legislation does not set a specific debt limit. It would automatically increase the limit by the amount required to fund US government obligations through that date.
It is also designed to prod Senate Democrats to pass a budget after almost four years of failing to do so. It calls for withholding the pay of lawmakers in either the House or Senate if their chamber fails to pass a congressional budget resolution by April 15.