The House returned to work today and immediately staged a soap opera over the debt ceiling, giving its members ample opportunity to rail and vote against another increase in the government’s borrowing authority – but with the clear understanding the increase will go through.
By a vote of 239 to 176, the Republican-controlled House approved a measure to prevent President Obama from raising the $15.2 trillion debt ceiling by an additional $1.2 trillion to avert a default on the debt. But today’s vote fell well short of the two-thirds majority – or 290 votes – that would be needed to override a certain presidential veto of their action. And besides that, the Democratic-controlled Senate would never go along with the House in this effort.
Last summer’s eleventh-hour deal between congressional leaders and the White House to raise the debt ceiling called for a corresponding cuts in long-term spending while shifting responsibility from the lawmakers to Obama for making further incremental increases in the debt ceiling, subject to a vote of disapproval by Congress. Obama last week formally notified the House and Senate that he planned to raise the debt ceiling to $16.4 trillion, saying only that "further borrowing is required to meet existing commitments."
After the near debacle last summer – which marked the beginning of House Republicans’ decline in power after a string of budgetary victories over Obama – Republican lawmakers understandably preferred a situation in which they could rant about the massive national debt without taking further political risks of triggering a default on the debt heading into a tough election campaign season.
“It’s either meaningless or hypocritical, because voting against a debt ceiling increase but not proposing the spending cuts or tax increases that we need to avoid a debt-ceiling increase is not leadership,” said William G. Gale, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, thought the debate was important enough to return from campaigning for president in South Carolina to vote in favor of the resolution – although he and other lawmakers acknowledged the vote was largely symbolic. “I believe we’re in denial here in the Congress,” Paul said. “If we had the vaguest idea of how serious this crisis is financially, not only for us but for the world, we would cut spending, because you can’t solve the problem of debt by accumulating more debt.”
Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., chief sponsor of the resolution to block an increase in the debt ceiling, declared that “this type of debt is not sustainable.”
“This resolution is offered today to send a message to the nation and to the world that this chamber is going to lead, and not hide,” Reed said on the House floor. “The path that we are on – it is a path of bankruptcy, it is a path that will destroy the American dream if we do not stand up to the plate and lead [the country] out of this fiscal nightmare that we now find ourselves in.”
Democrats, meanwhile, fumed that the Republicans were playing games with the debt after nearly precipitating the first U.S. default on its debt in history last summer and prompting Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the U.S. long-term bond rating last August. “Here we are on the first full day in the House . . . debating a measure that would take us immediately back to the brink of default,” said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee. “The House Republicans are once again relying on the votes of others to save them from themselves and to save this country from them. This is posturing, not legislating.”
With the debt ceiling theatrics out of the way, Congress now will turn its attention to more important business, including hammering out a compromise to extend a payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance through the remainder of the year and block a 27 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors.
Congress adjourned for the year shortly before Christmas after House Republicans were forced by Obama and Senate Republicans to agree to a temporary two-month extension of the tax cut and unemployment benefits through Feb. 30. While leaders of both parties agree the tax, unemployment and Medicare relief measures need to be continued well past the November election, they are still in fundamental disagreement over how pay for it with more than $160 billion of savings or revenue increases.
Democrats have retreated from their efforts to increase taxes on incomes of over $1 million to finance the extension of these benefits and breaks, but they feel they have the upper hand after forcing House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to go along with the two month extension of the tax cut and unemployment benefits.
Boehner conceded earlier today that his strategy in last year’s fight – in which the House Republicans held out for a one-year extension of the tax cut and unemployment benefits even while the two sides were miles apart in how to pay for them – was mistaken. “We were picking the right fight, but I would argue we probably picked it at the wrong time,” Boehner told reporters. After a lengthy standoff that prompted Obama to delay his departure for a Christmas holiday in Hawaii, House GOP leadership eventually agreed to the Senate proposal providing for the two month extension.
Obama later signed the bill, ensuring that a two percentage point payroll tax break for about 160 million people didn’t expire on Jan. 1, while also extending emergency unemployment benefits and protecting Medicare payments to doctors.
Boehner maintained that even if his timing was bad, House Republicans were correct to pursue the yearlong alternative. “Listen, we’ve got a lot of disparate voices in our conference,” Boehner said. “And the president wanted the payroll tax credit extended for a year. So did we. We didn’t think the Senate should leave. But it was pretty clear that the Senate wasn’t coming back.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, told MSNBC: “I don’t know what the next 10 months in Congress will bring. What I do know is that we’ve got to finish the job with respect to the payroll tax cut, make sure that we extend unemployment compensation for folks out of work through no fault of their own, and make sure that doctors who serve patients on Medicare get fully reimbursed so they keep seeing those patients.”
He said that “We should be able to do that fairly quickly so long as our Republican colleagues aren’t doing what they did last December, which is trying to add a lot of unrelated stuff to that.”