WASHINGTON -- The House passed a measure Thursday that would amount to the rough equivalent of declaring bankruptcy for the United States, directing the government to meet only certain obligations if Congress failed to raise the country's borrowing limit.
Republicans characterized the measure as a responsible step to mitigate the fallout from such a failure, but Democrats slammed it as the "Pay China First Act."
The legislation, which is actually called the Full Faith and Credit Act, lacks support in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and President Barack Obama has threatened to veto it. But it passed the House 221 to 207.
If Congress does not raise the debt limit, the Full Faith and Credit Act would direct the White House to pay U.S. debts in a certain order -- to first pay people on Social Security and holders of U.S. bonds, which include many major U.S. pension funds and foreign governments, with China being the largest among them.
Other obligations, from Medicare to military benefits, would go on the backburner.
Also passed was an amendment to bar members of Congress from getting paid if the debt limit is not raised.
Numerous independent economists have mocked such a scheme as irresponsible at best, deriding it as "the financial market equivalent of that Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell" and the first step to becoming a banana republic.
Republicans argued, however, that Obama and the Democrats have failed to cut Washington's spending enough, so the bill is needed to force the president to act.
"This legislation puts that responsibility on the president," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.).
While economists have warned that the "technical default" of paying only certain bills on time would be only a little better than a full-fledged default, Camp said that the difference was key and that drafting a payment plan reassures the world that the United States will still make good.
"We must act to make it clear to the American people and the world economy that the U.S. will not default," Camp said. Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) characterized the bill as a "backstop."
Yet even House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) admitted recently in an interview with Bloomberg TV that the measure would effectively pay foreign creditors such as China before many Americans with claims on the nation's treasury.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) seized on that admission, as did many other Democrats.
"Just yesterday Speaker Boehner admitted this bill means the United States will voluntarily act like a bankrupt corporation and pay China before we pay our troops," Hoyer said.
The top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), argued that the main purpose of the bill was to satisfy members of the tea party and to offer the GOP political cover in a potential debt limit standoff.
"It's being done to satisfy some within the Republican caucus or maybe to try to provide some leverage in terms of bargaining with the Democrats," Levin said in the floor debate. "This is playing with fire, though, with the economy of this country. Those who vote for it, playing with this fire, are going to burn themselves."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, also slammed the bill as a "political insurance policy" that Republicans believe would cushion any fallout over a debt ceiling breach.
"The whole idea's a harebrained idea. The idea is premised on the United States not paying all its bills. So let's figure out who to pay first and who will not get paid at all, and that's just a totally reckless approach for the United States government," he told HuffPost.
"If we were ever to default, [Republicans] would be able to point to this bill and say we're having an orderly bankruptcy as opposed to a messy bankruptcy," Van Hollen added.
Democrats in the Senate have called the measure a non-starter, though the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, saw some wisdom in the legislation.
"I think that is probably a benefit to the current system. I think it would make less damaging a failure to raise the debt ceiling," Sessions told HuffPost.
Some Democrats said privately that if Republicans believe a prioritization bill makes the consequences of failing to raise the debt limit less severe, they will be more likely to block a debt limit increase and will point to their bill as evidence they acted to avoid economic calamity.
Sessions called such talk "speculation."
"I think our Congress will wrestle with how to avoid the debt ceiling crisis. Hopefully we can, sooner rather than later, but usually it's later," Sessions said.
The debt limit stands at $16.4 trillion. The Treasury Department has estimated the nation will reach the limit this month, although stronger-than-expected revenues could allow Treasury officials to delay that moment until the fall.
The national debt limit is not the same as a consumer's credit card limit. The latter prevents spending once a cap is reached, which the former is a purely statutory limit that restricts how the government pays for spending that Congress has already authorized.
House Republicans will hold a special two-hour conference meeting next Wednesday to discuss their debt ceiling strategy.
"We are just beginning to talk with our Members -- and the American people -- about the best way to raise the debt limit consistent with the 'Boehner Rule,'" Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told HuffPost in an email.
The Boehner rule states that a debt ceiling hike must be matched by dollar-for-dollar spending cuts.
Steel also said Republicans are determined to find a resolution to avoid default.
"Our goal isn't to default on our debt, it’s to deal with it," he said. "We need to cut Washington spending to help create jobs, and it’s time for the president to get serious about solving this problem."