WASHINGTON — The GOP-controlled House on Wednesday kicked off another session with a protest vote against raising the government's borrowing cap by $1.2 trillion, but the maneuver amounted to political theater under a process stacked on purpose in President Barack Obama's favor.
The nearly party-line 239-176 vote puts the House on record against Obama's use of unprecedented authority – awarded to him through a mechanism devised by the Senate's top Republican – to unilaterally raise the so-called debt limit unless Congress can muster the votes to block him.
The Senate is sure to kill the measure next week, and Obama's veto power serves as a final guarantee that the increase will go through as intended and that the nation won't face another debt crisis like last summer.
The political dance choreographed under last summer's Budget Control Act was designed to permit lawmakers, mostly Republicans, to vote against debt increases but not actually block them – and provoke a first-ever, market-rattling default on U.S. government obligations.
The debate offered tea party-backed GOP freshmen an almost three-hour opportunity before C-Span cameras to cast blame on the White House and Democratically controlled Senate for the nation's fiscal ills. The national debt has skyrocketed during Obama's first term – from $10.6 trillion on Inauguration Day to $15.2 trillion today. Much of the blame lies with the deep recession Obama inherited, which made revenues plummet, but almost $1 trillion of the increase can be attributed to Obama's 2009 deficit-financed economic stimulus bill.
"Instead of giving the President more power to spend money we do not have, Congress should work together to find ways to cut spending and put America back on a path to fiscal responsibility," said Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.
"Today's vote will clearly show the American people who in this chamber want to further grow the size of government, let it intrude further into the private sector, and give more power Washington bureaucrats to meddle in the everyday lives of American citizens," said Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill. "And in contrast, it will show those of us who believe that a smaller government increases our constituents' liberty."
Democrat Jared Polis of Colorado said that under last year's nonbinding House GOP budget plan, the national debt would have risen by more than $5 trillion over the coming decade anyway. And he pointed out that the new borrowing authority is needed to pay for a $1 trillion-plus omnibus spending bill that many Republicans supported just last month.
"We're here playing a counter-productive and absurd game," Polis said.
"Let's be honest with the American people," said Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland. "We've all incurred a debt. We all spent the money. We drove on the roads. We were defended abroad. We invested in health care research. We all incurred these debts."
Even one GOP veteran said Wednesday's debate was a futile exercise, given how the August debt pact intentionally stacked the cards in Obama's favor.
"We have, in effect, given the president of the United States the ability to raise the debt ceiling without us ... having any control whatsoever," said veteran Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. "We gave the president carte blanche and it's dead wrong."
Conservative groups weren't joining in the GOP pep rally. The Club for Growth, which raises campaign cash for free-market conservative candidates, issued a half-dozen "Debt Hypocrisy Alerts" blasting lawmakers like Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, Tom Rooney, R-Fla., and Tom Reed, R-N.Y., for touting their support for Wednesday's measure after voting to increase the debt limit last summer.
Democrats went through the motions as well, arguing against a measure that they know isn't going anywhere.
"They're playing with fire and that's reckless. They know that others will put out the fire. And we'll vote, many of us, to do that today, and if we don't succeed, the Senate will do so," said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich. "This, I think, is worse than a charade because it really assumes that the agenda of this congress should essentially be a kind of a plaything."
The House passed a similar resolution in September after Obama used his authority to raise the debt cap by $500 billion.
Last year's debt agreement permits a total debt limit increase of $2.1 trillion in exchange for an equivalent amount in spending cuts, which would be spread out over the coming decade. The first $900 billion comes from caps on the day-to-day operations of federal agencies.