House vote puts off showdown on dealing with debt ceiling

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WASHINGTON -- Over objections from minority members but with the tacit blessing of the president and support of Senate Democrats, the House voted, 285-144, Wednesday to suspend the limit on government borrowing.

The bill, which now heads to the Senate, also includes a provision to hold lawmakers' pay in escrow starting April 15 if Congress hasn't passed a budget by then.

The legislation allows an unspecified amount of additional borrowing through May 18 in order to pay debts already incurred, and allows the government to avoid a first-time default for at least four months. It does not authorize new spending. It would suspend the $16.4 trillion cap on federal borrowing and reset it on May 19 to reflect the additional borrowing required between the date the bill becomes law and then.

Eighty-six Democrats joined 199 Republicans to pass the bill. Thirty-three Republicans and 111 Democrats voted no. All 13 Pennsylvania Republicans voted yes and all five Democrats voted no.

Wall Street rose slightly on the news.

In an unusual alliance, Senate Democratic leaders sided with the House GOP. They promised a vote in their chamber, even as they declared the House vote was a victory for the Democratic administration.

"Republicans are in full-on retreat on fiscal policy," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters. He said the plan is a reversal for the GOP, which earlier threatened to allow a government shutdown before it would consent to increase debt.

President Barack Obama repeatedly said he would not negotiate on the need to increase the $16.4 trillion debt cap, and he didn't, Mr. Schumer said.

"The president stared down the Republicans. They blinked because they realized they didn't have the leverage they thought they did," Mr. Schumer said.

Mr. Obama would prefer to raise the debt ceiling for a longer period, but said he "will not stand in the way of this bill becoming law," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.

"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," Mr. Carney said.

Democrats in the House complained that temporary fixes only delay tough decisions and create less certainty for the future.

"This is not a serious or viable attempt to address the debt ceiling issue. It's another way to avoid dealing with the difficult choices we need to make," Rep. Robert Brady, D-Philadelphia, said during a floor speech.

He and other Democrats said the legislation is a gambit, not a serious effort to avoid the fiscal calamity that would come with defaulting on the nation's debt.

"This bill was cooked up ... when the majority party said, 'We're in trouble. The people don't like us. Things aren't going well. How are we going to fix it?' So they came up with this gimmick," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a floor speech.

Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Bucks, disagreed.

"This is not a gimmick. For the past four years, our colleagues in the Senate have failed in their most basic responsibility of government, which is to pass a budget," he said.

Republicans including Rep. Keith Rothfus of Sewickley said the legislation forces government to live within its means so that the economy can grow.

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Blair, said the bill responsibly prevents the country from defaulting on its debt and force the Senate to pass a budget.

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, disagreed. "Congressional Republicans are once again kicking the can down the road," he said after the vote. "Congress should pass a clean, long-term bill to raise the debt limit now and then sit down and negotiate a comprehensive budget plan that reduces federal deficits over a reasonable period of time."

Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., said the bill will give Congress time to find a more permanent solution.

Now that Republicans have put off the threat of debt default, the stage is set for a battle in the coming weeks over automatic spending cuts set to take effect March 1 because of the failure of the so-called "super-committee" to reach a deficit-reduction deal in 2011.

"We've got a lot of work ahead of us in the next three months, and my constituents are expecting Congress to meet the promises we made to cut trillions in spending, get our country on a path to a balanced budget and move the private sector toward creating jobs again," said Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said his caucus supports the debt-ceiling bill and will move quickly on it.

"By passing this bill the Republicans are joining Democrats to say we will not hold the full faith and credit of the United States hostage. We will pay the debt we have incurred," Mr. Reid said. "The middle class has been telling us they don't want another crisis, and this bill gives them the security that they deserve."

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Staff writer Ann Belser contributed. Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 703-996-9292.


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