Senate approves debt ceiling increase

The Senate Thursday passed legislation to increase the statutory debt limit to $14.3 trillion, a $1.9 trillion boost, after adopting a pay/go amendment requiring any mandatory spending increases or tax cuts to be offset.

"We've gone to the restaurant; we've eaten the meal, and now the only question is whether we are going to pay the check," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said during debate.

Raising the debt limit is typically an unpopular vote, and Democrats decided on the $1.9 trillion increase in part so that Congress would not have to raise it again until after the November elections.

Both the pay/go amendment and underlying bill passed 60-40 along party lines.

Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said he opposed the increase because Congress has not acted to curb the growing debt and the deficit, which the Congressional Budget Office put at $1.35 trillion for fiscal 2010, or 9.2 percent of the gross domestic product.

"It is not responsible to raise the debt ceiling in this manner if you aren't going to put in place any responsible activity that is going to control the rising debt, and there is no proposal here to do that," Gregg said.

Under the fiscal 2010 budget resolution, "the debt will double in five years, and triple in 10 years," he added. "That isn't fiscal discipline."

Gregg also faulted Democrats for taking the issue off the table until after elections.

"Why $1.9 trillion?" Gregg asked. "So that the Congress does not have to face up to the debt ceiling before the next election. Well, we ought to have to face up to it again."

Approval of the pay/go amendment was part of a deal between 14 fiscally conservative Senate Democrats and the White House, in which President Obama establishes by executive order a commission that would make recommendations to reduce the deficit. The group had pledged to oppose the debt-limit increase unless a process was put in place to tackle the deficit.

As part of the plan, House and Senate Democratic leaders have pledged to take up the presidential panel's recommendations.

Republicans this week helped defeat a proposal to create a similar panel that would make recommendations Congress would have been required to take up. That measure was sponsored by Gregg and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

Democrats cited GOP opposition to the pay/go amendment and the commission as evidence that Republicans plan to oppose every Democratic bill this year in hopes denying Democrats victories in November.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., noted that seven Republicans who previously backed the Gregg-Conrad measure voted "no" on both measures Thursday. Democrats noted Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who last year said the commission proposal offered a chance for bipartisan cooperation, also opposed it this time.

Also Thursday, the Senate defeated an amendment offered by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that would hold increases in discretionary spending to no more than a 2 percent increase a year for five years. The amendment needed 60 votes to pass but fell four votes short, 56-44.

Dan Friedman contributed to this story.

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