WASHINGTON—Engineered as a way for congressional Republicans to go on the fiscal offensive, the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a four-month increase in the government’s borrowing limit.
Many Republicans have pledged to vote against raising the debt ceiling without the inclusion of matching spending cuts. But the temporary extension legislation, which passed 285 to 144, provided some political cover by including a measure that holds back the salaries of congressional lawmakers if Congress does not pass a budget by April 15.
“Today’s vote was the first step towards trying to resolve the nation’s fiscal crisis in a responsible manner,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said after the vote. “I look forward to working with the White House and Senate to do so.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced that the Senate would pass the House bill without changes, and the White House indicated that President Obama would sign it.
The GOP’s plan for the four-month extension began to coalesce last week at a House Republican retreat in Williamsburg, Va. Many Republican lawmakers fretted that the party has taken too much of the blame when it comes to the failure of Washington to address the nation’s fiscal mess. Meanwhile, those lawmakers said the Senate seemed to have been granted a free pass despite not having produced a budget in nearly four years.
The “no budget, no pay” plan, the centerpiece of Wednesday’s debt limit vote, is designed to allow House Republicans to shine a light on the Senate’s fiscal inactivity. House GOP leadership pitched the strategy as a way for them to draw a line in the sand when it comes to a federal budget.
Republican lawmakers have spent the last several days blasting the Senate’s missing budgets. The Senate’s failure to act has had political repercussions: Democrats have generated campaign ads attacking the specific spending cuts and entitlement reforms outlined in recent House Republican budgets. While Democrats have tried to use the Republican plans to scare voters, those voters have been left without a contrasting Democrat budget to analyze.
Senate Budget Committee Chairwomen Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Wednesday that the Senate this year would pass its first budget since 2009. With the Senate forced to act, Republicans now hope to compare their budget proposals with the specifics found in the Democratic-led Senate’s budget blueprint.
House Speaker John Boehner vowed that the new proposal from Republicans this year would balance the federal budget within a decade: “Most Americans would look up and go, ‘Wait a minute, why do they need 10 years to balance the budget?’ But we know with baby boomers retiring and the fact that it wasn’t prepared for, it’s going to take a little more time. But my goodness, we ought to be able to balance the budget in the next 10 years.”
Not every Republican was on board with Wednesday’s debt ceiling increase, with 33 Republican defections, including Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., who called the move “akin to playing with fire.”
“We’ve seen time and time again that once the federal government opens the door to increased spending, it doesn’t have a great track record of going back later to close it,” Broun said.
Republicans who backed the deal argued that the debt ceiling increase was not a capitulation. Instead, they presented the move as a reordering of the three main fiscal fights facing Congress this spring. On March 1, deep automatic spending cuts in defense and domestic programs are slated to kick in. Meanwhile, the authority to keep the government running expires on March 27. With Wednesday’s four-month extension to May 18, the debt ceiling now comes last in the three congressional debates.
Many Republican lawmakers have suggested that they would prefer risking a potential government shutdown by taking a hard-line position during the late March deadline to fund the government rather than risking a government default by leveraging an increase in the debt ceiling in exchange for spending cuts.
The pressure is now on Republicans to win some meaningful fiscal reforms in the pending March showdowns before the debt ceiling debate is revisited in four months.
In true Washington fashion, even the “no budget, no pay” scheme includes a caveat. The 27th Amendment does not allow Congress to alter congressional pay during a single Congress. So the penalty of no pay after April 15 imposed by the bill only withholds the salaries of lawmakers in an escrow account until this Congress ends in two years or until a budget is passed.