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The Issue: Debt limit showdown averted

By MARCELLA S. KREITER, United Press International   |   Feb. 16, 2014 at 4:30 AM
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Could that have been a real-life "House of Cards" playing itself out in Congress last week, with lawmakers approving a yearlong suspension of the debt limit and restoring military pension cost-of-living cuts with a minimum of fuss and bother?

To be sure, the conservative right howled at House Speaker John Boehner's decision to bring up a clean bill, which passed with few Republican votes, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's decision to vote with the Democrats to cut off debate as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, demanded a change in rules that would have required 60 votes to approve any increase. McConnell's switch brought several other Republicans around.

It appears the grown-ups are back in control of the playground.

"By not waiting until the 11th hour to raise the debt limit, lawmakers have taken another step forward in their ability to responsibly confront the country's fiscal problems," Maya MacGuineas, head of the Campaign to Fix the Debt, said in a news release. "Last year's [House Budget Committee Chairman Paul] Ryan-[Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty] Murray budget agreement proved that Congress is able to work together proactively on tough fiscal issues, and this deal picks up right where they left off. The fact that the House was able to work together in a bipartisan manner to pass a clean debt limit bill gives us hope that progress on the country's larger fiscal problems is indeed possible.

"It is also encouraging that the House Republicans decided against tying policies to this legislation that would have increased the deficit. This was ultimately the right and responsible course of action."

Congress had until Feb. 27 -- the date Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said he would run out of options for paying bills -- to act but members had been planning to be home for Valentine's Day and not return until Feb. 25.

Major issues still on the table include restoring extended unemployment benefits for people who have been without work for more than six months. Those expired Dec. 28 for 1.3 million Americans and 72,000 more have joined them weekly since. Republicans have expressed reluctance to renew the payments.

The other hot-potato issues are immigration reform and raising the minimum wage, both of which have been getting lip service on Capitol Hill.

The House voted 221-201 Tuesday to approve the debt ceiling suspension, which runs through March 15, 2015. Only 28 Republicans supported the measure -- a new mark, Roll Call said, for the number of defections by the majority party on a bill since digital records have been kept. It passed on the strength of 193 Democratic votes. Roll Call said the vote also was remarkable because Boehner participated, something he rarely does. Other members of the GOP leadership, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., joined him but the bipartisanship party ended in the hierarchy at Ryan.

In the Senate, the final vote was strictly party line, 55-43.

The restoration of military cuts, approved as part of the budget action late last year, was much easier to swallow even though it contained no spending offsets. The House vote was 326-90 and the Senate vote was 95-3.

Boehner, R-Ohio, decided to go ahead with the debt limit vote after it became apparent he could not cobble together 218 votes for any bill that boasted contingencies -- including the military pension COLA restoration.

Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin told the Hill Boehner's decision indicates he has lost his ability lead the House and his party.

The decision also earned Boehner the wrath of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which accused him of "telegraph[ing] weakness to Democrats" and called on House Republicans to deny him the speakership come January 2015.

"Conservatives helped Republicans win a majority in the House of Representatives, which made it possible for John Boehner to become speaker. Unfortunately, he has chosen to ignore us and help President Obama enact his liberal agenda," the political action committee said in a statement on its website.

"Unless we install a new leader who will actually go on offense, Democrats will never fear us and we will never have any leverage."

The huffing and puffing didn't stop there. The group doesn't like McConnell, R-Ky., either and released a video "that exposes Mitch McConnell's IRS-like political attacks on conservatives and his record of supporting higher taxes, more debt, and funding for Obamacare."

McConnell is up for re-election this year and the race is ugly. He's in a bitter primary battle with Matt Bevin, who has Tea Party support. If he survives, the latest Rasmussen Reports poll indicates he's in a 42 percent to 42 percent standoff with likely Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes.

It seems no matter what they do, the leaders can't earn any points. The decision to stand firm on a plan to defund the Affordable Care Act as a condition for passing a continuing resolution to keep the government open in October resulted in a 16-day shutdown. That didn't go over well with voters either, especially since there were no concessions from Democrats when the shutdown ended.

Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., has proposed changing the U.S. approach to the debt limit. He has introduced a measure that would require a supermajority of Congress to vote against raising the debt limit instead of doing the periodic dance around raising it.

A Rasmussen poll conducted last Monday and Tuesday indicated 79 percent of those queried were pretty sure Congress would raise the debt ceiling but at the same time 57 percent said they would like to see major spending cuts. The poll queried 1,000 likely voters and had a 3 percent error rate.

The national debt is $17.3 trillion and though the budget deficit is shrinking it's still adding to the total. Long gone are the surpluses created by the Clinton-era budgets that would have started paying down the debt. They vanished in the Bush-era tax cuts and war machine.

"There is still the need for Congress to consider ways in which to improve the country's alarming fiscal imbalance," MacGuineas said. "The latest projections from the Congressional Budget Office underscore the need for lawmakers to pursue policies that strengthen the country's fiscal health over the long term. It's critical that lawmakers not take steps backwards or undermine this progress by considering legislation that has the ability to add to the deficit or worsen the country's already strained fiscal outlook."

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