WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate voted Thursday to pass a short-term suspension of the debt limit, warding off another showdown over raising the nation's borrowing limit and turning its attention to two more looming fiscal deadlines: deep sequestration-related cuts and funding for the federal government.
The legislation passed the upper chamber by a vote count of 64 to 34, and will raise the debt ceiling by however many bills the government racks up over the next 90 days. The Senate also rejected a series of amendments that would have attached conditions to the bill, such as pairing the debt limit hike with dollar-for-dollar spending cuts and prioritizing how the government pays its bills.
The bill contains one caveat, a provision introduced by the House GOP that would force the Senate to write a budget by withholding lawmakers' pay if they fail to pass a spending resolution. Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said her committee planned to draft a budget this year anyway.
But while lawmakers expressed optimism that the debt ceiling deal would enable the country to meet its financial obligations until at least May 19, there was little hope for an agreement over how to deal with the next fiscal issue -- $1.2 trillion of sequestration-related cuts that will automatically kick in on March 1.
"I think the sequester is going to happen," said Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.). "I'm not sure anybody is really saying at the moment -- here's an idea that holds us back. It looks to me like we're headed in that direction."
The fiscal cliff deal delayed the sequester by a period of two months and reduced its first-year impact from $109 billion to $85 billion, but the consequences remain both dire and unpopular among members on both sides of the aisle.
HuffPost reported Wednesday on the implications of the sequester taking effect for both defense and domestic spending, writing that as it stands, modified sequestration this year will slice discretionary defense spending by 7.3 percent and discretionary non-defense spending by 5.1 percent, along with a 2-percent cut to Medicare. The non-defense cuts will likely hit community development and housing assistance, states' education grants and a number of federal agencies. Some initiatives, such as Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps and children's health insurance, are exempt.
Johanns argued that switching gears from Thursday's debt ceiling vote to the impending sequester is all too routine for a Congress that specializes in crisis governance.
"In the four years I've been here, it seems like we kind of careen from crisis to crisis -- debt ceiling to fiscal cliff to continuing resolution," Johanns said. "But I think the problem is, personally, we've got to get back into the routine of doing budgets and regular process, where these things can be fleshed out and we can anticipate problems and try to solve them."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) had his own way of describing the constant shifting of attention from one fiscal deadline to the next. "I call them rolling fiscal cliffs," he told HuffPost.
The Oregon senator said the short-term agreement on the debt ceiling was a sign that issues could be dealt with in a bipartisan way. He added that he wasn't quite ready to give up on the sequester, but conceded that it might be too late to draw up alternatives that both parties can agree to.
"People understand particularly with sequestration on hand that the time is short," Wyden said. [But] clearly people look at the consequences of sequestration [and] putting government on automatic pilot … there are people that are going to get hurt that the American people don't want to see get hurt."
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Wednesday that the administration has an alternative "balanced" plan that couples spending cuts with revenue raisers and could be used to replace the sequester. But Senate Republicans echoed their colleagues in the House of Representatives by arguing that the lower chamber already voted on a substitute bill for sequestration that could just as easily be taken up by Senate Democrats.
"The House has been responsible -- this body hasn't," said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.). "[But] I've actually seen how dysfunctional the Senate can be, so I'm not optimistic."
Johnson added that the purpose of the debt ceiling vote was to stave off another crisis, thereby allowing Congress to at least have a debate on sequestration and then determine how to tackle the expiration of the continuing resolution on March 27. But he called on President Barack Obama to lead the way on yielding a long-term solution that addresses the debt and deficit.
"Ask the president, ask the Democrats," Johnson said. "[The House] has passed budgets -- I voted for them. Are they perfect solutions? No. You'll never agree with everything, but we actually have put our vote to a plan. We've been willing to be held accountable."
UPDATE: 4:30 p.m. -- Shortly after the measure passed, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a statement reiterating the need for the Senate to pass a budget.
"It shouldn't have taken legislative action by the House to force the Democratic majority in the Senate to do its job -- but after nearly four years of inaction on a budget by Senate Democrats, that's what it came to," Boehner wrote. "Because of the efforts of House Republicans, Senate Democrats are now required to do their job for the American people and pass a budget, or lose their pay. Now Senate Democrats should take the task seriously and present a plan that balances the budget and responsibly addresses the government's spending problem."
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