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Senate leader raps plan to tap retirement funds to ease debt crisis

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Tuesday criticized a possible Bush administration move to tap federal employee retirement funds to avoid immediately raising the government's debt ceiling.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Tuesday criticized a possible Bush administration move to tap federal employee retirement funds to avoid immediately raising the government's debt ceiling.

Daschle and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., each said they want to pass a "clean" bill increasing the debt ceiling, preferably before Congress departs at the end of next week for its spring recess.

"I don't think it's appropriate to use other funds," Daschle said. He acknowledged that former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin had employed such methods during the Clinton administration, but noted that "some called for his impeachment" when he did so.

The collaborative spirit in the Senate has not extended to the House-- where Democrats have linked raising the debt limit to opening bipartisan talks on the entire budget.

CongressDaily reported Tuesday that the administration was considering borrowing from the retirement funds. This would give the House time to move a must-pass, wartime supplemental--and attach the debt ceiling hike to that bill.

The Treasury Department has calculated the $5.95 trillion debt ceiling could be breached in the next few weeks.

House Republicans are unwilling to bring up a stand-alone debt ceiling bill without assurances that it would garner Democratic support.

"It's still a question of getting the votes" on the Democratic side, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said Tuesday.

Armey he did not see anything wrong with tapping federal employee retirement programs to postpone a vote on raising the debt ceiling.

"We've been through this all before," Armey said. "They are interim management tools and they've been done before."

But House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., Tuesday repeated his call for a budget summit including congressional leaders and the White House, saying GOP budget policy had driven up the federal debt over the past year.

"[Otherwise], they've got to deal with it. They're running the place," Gephardt said.

Said Daschle: "The House is not in a position to move a clean bill, [which] complicates efforts over here. Nonetheless, we will try to move a clean bill."

Lott said he believed in widespread bipartisan sentiment in the Senate to pass a clean bill that would carry the government through one more year.

But he agreed the House has "a different set of problems" and said he would not have "a big problem" with attaching the bill to must-pass legislation.

Daschle's spokeswoman said the size of the increase--which would dictate when the issue would come again before Congress-- was "still under consideration."

Meanwhile, Armey offered no timeline Tuesday for a House vote to raise the debt ceiling, saying GOP leaders were still looking at "some vehicles" to which they could attach the debt limit vote.

"The Democrats will probably not cooperate at all on this subject, so it becomes a matter of us passing it on our own," Armey said.

Mark Wegner contributed to this report.