House torpedoes unconditional hike to $14.3 trillion debt ceiling

The House overwhelmingly voted down an unconditional increase to the $14.3 trillion debt limit Tuesday, as the Republican majority delivered a symbolic rebuke to President Obama ahead of a meeting at the White House.

The vote was 318-97, with 82 Democrats joining every Republican in rejecting legislation that would have authorized $2.4 trillion in additional borrowing by the federal government. Seven Democrats voted present on the legislation.

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House Republicans scheduled the vote, which occurred after the close of the American markets, to demonstrate to Senate Democrats and the White House that Congress would not increase the debt limit without significant spending cuts and reforms.

The lopsided result was expected after Vice President Biden began bipartisan negotiations on a long-term debt-reduction plan, essentially acceding to the GOP demand that an increase in the debt ceiling be paired with fiscal reforms.

In an unusual twist, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), sponsored the bill only to oppose it.

“This vote, a vote based on legislation I have introduced, will and must fail,” Camp said in a floor speech. “Now, most members aren’t happy when they bring a bill to the floor and it fails, but I consider defeating an unconditional increase to be a success, because it sends a clear and critical message that the Congress has finally recognized we must immediately begin to rein in America’s affection for deficit spending.”

The bill put House Democrats in an awkward position after 114 members of the caucus signed a letter by Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) calling on Republicans to bring a “clean” debt-limit measure to the floor. Many of those Democrats reversed themselves when it became clear that Republicans were granting their request only to see the legislation fail.

Hours before the vote, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he was advising Democrats to oppose the measure to avoid political attacks from Republicans. Members, he said, should not “subject themselves to a political 30-second ad attack.”

“My advice to them would be not to play this political charade,” Hoyer said at his weekly press briefing.

Welch assailed the GOP move even as he planned to vote yes on the legislation. “This is a bogus political maneuver,” he told The Hill before the vote.

Democrats also complained that Republicans held the vote under a fast-track procedure providing for minimal debate and requiring a two-thirds majority to pass.  Ultimately, slightly more than half the Democratic Caucus voted to increase the debt limit, but among the no votes were Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Hoyer.

Rep. John Larson (Conn.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, called the move “a sham of a vote” and voiced concern about the reaction of global markets. He cited the initial House rejection of the 2008 Wall Street rescue package, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 700 points. “I was on the floor of the House of Representatives when the stock market plunged when people tried to play chicken with critical issues,” Larson said. “Let us hope that the market won’t be affected by the obvious sham that is going on today.

“Every single economist we have spoken to has said, ‘Do not mess around with this,’” Larson added. He was the only member of the Democratic leadership team to support the clean debt-limit increase.

In contrast to House Democrats, the White House shrugged off the vote. “It’s fine. It’s fine,” press secretary Jay Carney told reporters when asked repeatedly if the vote was all about politics. Despite the president’s request for a debt-limit increase, the White House released no official statement of administration policy in the lead-up to the vote.

“We believe that, in the end, Congress will do the right thing and raise the ceiling,” Carney said.

Carney repeated, however, the administration’s longstanding warning that a failure to increase the debt limit — and a resulting default by the government — “would be calamitous to the domestic economy and to the global economy.”

The Treasury breached the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling on May 16, but the administration says it can stave off a first-ever default until Aug. 2.

Obama has invited the entire House Republican Conference to the White House on Wednesday; Carney said the president wanted to “hear and listen to their ideas, their concerns.” He will meet with House Democrats on Thursday. The Biden group will hold its next meeting June 6.

— Pete Kasperowicz and Sam Youngman contributed.

This story was originally published at 7:17 p.m. and updated at 8:39 p.m.