Senate to vote on debt deal

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., center, and other Senate Democratic leaders Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., center, and other Senate Democratic leaders J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The Democratic-controlled Senate is set to give final passage Thursday to a bill allowing the U.S. Treasury to keep borrowing money until May 19 and ward off the risk of default, putting off one battle as other fights loom with Republicans in upcoming weeks over automatic spending cuts and keeping the government operating.

President Obama is expected to sign the legislation to suspend the $16.4 trillion limit on federal borrowing, to give the White House and congressional negotiators more time to strike a broader deal on a longer debt-ceiling extension and other battles tied to reducing federal deficits.

The Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center has estimated that as much as $450 billion will be added to the federal debt through mid-May under the measure. But if the bill is not approved, the government is likely to default on its debt obligations as early as mid-February.

A senior Senate aide said the measure, which passed last week by the Republican-controlled House, is to be taken up in the early afternoon. A quartet of proposed Republican amendments will be addressed prior to the vote, but they are unlikely to be adopted.

Those amendments include one offered by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to ban sending F-16 fighter jets to Egypt, and another by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, dubbed the “End Government Shutdowns Act” to create an automatic stop-gap spending measure as a temporary substitute for appropriations bills not completed by the Oct. 1 start of a fiscal year. The aim is described by sponsors as a way to avoid “budget busting bills” being forced through Congress against the threat of a government shutdown. None are expected to be passed and attached to the bill.

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was able to get the measure passed last week with a 285-144 vote. He and other Republicans did so while playing down the bill’s  main purpose -- the debt-limit increase -- and emphasizing instead its provision to force the Senate to pass a budget plan this spring for the first time in four years, or see lawmakers’ pay withheld. In fact, the name they've given the measure is the “No Budget, No Pay Act.”

In reality, Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., had already announced that the Senate would move a budget resolution through committee and to the floor this year.

To gain passage, Boehner also had to make several commitments privately to rank-and-file members that could eventually complicate the upcoming fiscal battles.

Those include a promise that House Republicans would in early March stick to cuts agreed to in the so-called sequestration process, to be split evenly between military and discretionary domestic spending, unless replaced by other spending cuts of equal size from other parts of the budget. Boehner also promised that a continuing resolution needed near the end of March to keep government running through Oct. 1 will limit additional spending.

Longer-term, Boehner also has committed to passing annual budget resolutions that would erase the nation’s annual deficits within 10 years, beginning with the fiscal 2014 measure that House Republicans will pass this spring – something many experts say would be difficult to achieve without either adding new revenues or devastating entitlements and other spending.

Although the bill being voted on today would allow the government to keep borrowing until May 19, a Bipartisan Policy Center analysis of the legislation last week projects that the next time the debt ceiling will have to be raised again likely won’t be until August.

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