WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to raise the nation's debt ceiling by an unspecified amount, suspending the federal government's restriction on borrowing until late May.
The legislation passed the lower chamber by 285 to 144, with nearly three dozen Republicans opposing the measure.
It includes something of a stunt -- a provision to force the Senate to write a budget by suspending lawmakers' pay unless they pass a spending resolution. The "No Budget No Pay" provision is largely symbolic, since Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash) already has pledged to write a budget -- something that the Senate has not done for nearly four years, largely for political reasons.
The passage of the debt ceiling legislation would stave off until May 19 or later another showdown over paying the country's bills and would ultimately raise the debt limit by whatever new bills the nation racks up over the next 90 days. It's not quite a blank check, but analysts believe it would allow the Treasury Department the leeway to build a new cushion before the new deadline.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declared that passing the legislation was a step toward fiscal accountability.
"If you don't do a budget, you don't get paid," Boehner said in a floor speech. "I have no doubt we're going to do our work -- we're committed to doing a budget and 10-year plan to solve our budget crisis and to balance our budget.
"Frankly, I think it's time for the Senate and the White House to produce a budget," he added.
Upon learning of the House bill's passage, White House press secretary Jay Carney said it was a "welcome development" and reiterated that President Barack Obama will not block the bill from becoming law.
"The president will not stand in the way of this bill becoming law," Carney told reporters at his daily briefing. "His interest is in resolving our budget and fiscal issues for the long term, and he looks forward to engaging with Congress [on a longer-term agreement]."
"The president believes that we need to, as a country, do the responsible thing and, without drama or delay, pay our bills, meet our commitments," Carney continued. "Ideally we would extend or raise the debt ceiling for a long period of time, so that this is not a question, so that the uncertainty that has surrounded this issue of late because of the political strategy that House Republicans have taken will be removed or would be removed."
Once the bill had garnered enough votes to pass the lower chamber, House members erupted in applause. Rep. Steve Fleming (R-La.), who voted in favor of the bill, said the event was a "breakthrough," adding that he was encouraged by the president's willingness to accept a short-term extension.
"The president almost instantly saluted this idea. I can't remember the last time that we have taken the initiative on something -- particularly relative to spending -- that the president just automatically said hey, that's not a bad idea," Fleming added.
Of course, the bill that passed was not tied to spending cuts. But Fleming argued that with the threat of debt default no longer looming over the country's head, Congress could engage in a real debate over the sequestration-related cuts that are set to kick in on March 1.
"This is the beginning of the beginning," Fleming said. "Now we can get down to the real debate, and that is … what are we going to be cutting [and] what are we going to be reducing in spending. That's where the real debate is going to be, and that's where it ought to be."
For their part, House Democrats roundly mocked the bill, calling it "toothless," "laughable" and a "gimmick," since it does not actually require Congress to pass a budget. It merely mandates that each chamber pass its own version, with no requirement that they actually come to an agreement on something the president can sign into law.
And because it is unconstitutional to change congressional lawmakers' pay during a session, the bill only delays pay for either chamber that has not passed a budget by April 15. The money would be paid at the end of the session, at the latest.
"We will consider a bill called 'No Budget, No Pay Act' worthy of almost unrestrained derision," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said during his weekly media availability on Tuesday. "This bill ... is a reflection of the same kind of politics of the 112th Congress, which reflected political gamesmanship rather than substantive policy."
House Democrats also argued that the measure would do no good, since it would only delay a resolution of the ongoing fights over spending and taxation, granting none of the certainly the GOP often argues that businesses need.
"What we are permitting is continuing chaos in the economic world," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.).
"I have really good sense; that's why I didn't vote for it," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). "We have a single-digit approval rating, and it seems like we're taking every opportunity that we can to make ourselves look worse. We're saying just after the holidays we want to put the bloodletting off for three months ... for what? Why are we doing this to ourselves, and more importantly, why are we putting our country through this?"
Nevertheless, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) signaled Wednesday that the Senate would take up the bill, saying it is, in substance, a clean debt limit increase.
"I thank Speaker Boehner for his leadership in diffusing a fight over the debt ceiling debate," Reid said at a press conference. "See, as I've said before, not everything over here has to be a big fight."
He added that Republicans had to add the pay stunt to their bill to pacify House conservatives. "We all understand the Tea Party plays a big part in what goes on in the House, and they need a gimmick or two to get things done over there," Reid said.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) painted the GOP bill as a victory for President Obama, arguing that last week's annual House GOP retreat appeared to have a "mellowing effect" on Republicans.
"It hands the president his second major win in a month, and it shows that the Republicans are in full-on retreat on fiscal policy," Schumer said. "President Obama has consistently said he'd refuse to negotiate on the debt ceiling. His strategy is vindicated now that the Republicans have backed off their threats to take the nation into a default."
"The president stared down the Republicans," Schumer continued. "They blinked because they realized they didn't have the leverage they thought they would."
Still, Congress is facing battles in early March over how to resolve the across-the-board spending cuts mandated in the "sequestration" that was part of the last debt-limit increase. Democrats and Republicans also will likely face off over continued funding of the government, which runs out of money on March 27 unless Congress authorizes more.
This story has been updated with comments from Reps. Steve Fleming and Emanuel Cleaver and White House press secretary Jay Carney.
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