'Clean' vote on debt limit set to trap Dems

House Republicans will hold a symbolic vote next week to pressure Democrats into accepting deep spending cuts in exchange for lifting the $14.3 trillion debt limit.

The move, announced Tuesday in a closed-door conference meeting, is designed to show President Obama and Senate Democrats that Congress will not unconditionally grant the government more borrowing authority.

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The measure will be a “clean” vote on raising the debt limit, meaning it does not include corresponding spending cuts.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, introduced the legislation, which raises the ceiling by $2.4 trillion, the amount needed under Obama’s budget proposal to carry the nation through 2012.

“The legislation I filed today will allow the House to reject a clean increase in the debt limit, proving to the American people, the financial markets and the administration that we are serious about tackling our debt and deficit problems,” Camp said in a statement.

“Increasing the debt limit without showing that we can achieve real spending restraint would likely lead to very similar results as default: a lower credit rating, higher borrowing costs and more expensive imports. Such irresponsibility would most certainly increase the cost of oil and gas, making the pain at the pump that much worse. All of that is bad for the economy, bad for job creation and bad for American families.”

Republican leaders have demanded at least one dollar in spending cuts for every dollar in new authorized borrowing. 

The planned vote amounts to calling a bluff by House Democrats after more than 100 caucus members signed a letter asking the GOP to allow a clean vote on lifting the debt limit. Republicans are confident of achieving party unity, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has said not a single member would vote for the bill — a statement echoed Tuesday by a senior GOP aide.

Democrats, including some who had called for a clean vote, assailed the announcement as a political stunt.

“My personal feeling is I think it sends a terrible message to the international community,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “I can’t think of a way that is much more irresponsible than bringing up an extension of the debt limit … just to show it can’t pass. That’s not very good, I don’t think.”

The second-ranking House Democrat, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), had earlier said he would support a clean debt-limit increase, but he indicated Tuesday that he would reverse himself if Republicans didn’t join in. 

“I will not vote for a clean debt-limit extension if no Republicans vote for it and instead use it just to demagogue,” Hoyer said. “We need to pursue a responsible course to pay our bills and set forward a plan to reduce our deficits. I hope Republicans will work with us toward those goals, rather than making this a partisan issue used for political gain.”

The Democrat who led the push for a clean vote, Rep. Peter Welch (Vt.), sharply criticized the GOP decision while saying he would support the legislation. 

“I’ll support it, but it’s transparently a political maneuver,” he told The Hill. He said the letter he wrote — and which a majority of the Democratic Caucus signed — urged Republicans not to play politics with the issue. “What [GOP Majority Leader Eric] Cantor’s [Va.] maneuver is about is playing politics with the debt limit.”

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Welch said Republicans were employing a standard political practice. “You try to find leverage where you can,” he said. “The leverage [the GOP is] using is a loaded gun to the heart of the American economy.”

A Democratic leadership aide said the party leadership would not whip its members for or against the bill. Republicans plan to hold the vote under suspension rules requiring a two-thirds majority to pass, which forbids amendments from being attached. The result could be a lopsided vote against the measure if Democrats become fearful that Republicans will use their support for adding more debt without spending cuts against them in next year’s election.

Republican aides dismissed concerns — raised by some Democrats — that a failed House vote would rattle the financial markets, much like the failure of the initial Wall Street bailout package in 2008 sent the Dow crashing by more than 700 points. The GOP circulated a fact sheet listing nine examples of clean debt-limit votes that have failed in the House or Senate since 1975.

The government officially reached the current limit last week, but Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said the department could stave off a first-ever default until Aug. 2.

“The Obama administration’s request for a debt-limit increase without spending cuts is dangerous for jobs and our economy, and the American people reject it,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “This vote will show that the administration’s proposal cannot pass in the House, and that major spending cuts and reforms must be part of the solution.”

The White House had little reaction to the news, reflecting the fact that the administration has implicitly signed on to the GOP demand that a debt-limit hike be accompanied by spending cuts, despite its initial push for a clean vote. 

“Serious discussions are already under way on how to reach agreement on significant deficit reduction, and all responsible leaders from both parties agree that we need to extend the debt limit,” spokeswoman Amy Brundage said. “That is important so that the U.S. can live up to obligations for debts the country has already incurred and so that we do not run the risk of plunging the economy into another recession. We are confident that we will make real progress on both of these important issues.”

Deficit-reduction talks led by Vice President Biden are ongoing; he met with congressional leaders for more than two and a half hours Tuesday at the Capitol. Another meeting is scheduled for Thursday.

Alexander Bolton and Mike Lillis contributed.