House votes 218-214 for short-term debt ceiling increase

In an end-of-session nail-biter vote, the House passed a short-term increase of the debt limit Wednesday, setting the stage for a February showdown on deficit spending.

It was not a popular measure with centrist and vulnerable lawmakers, who don’t want to be portrayed as allowing the nation to go deeper into debt. The $290 billion increase would set the debt ceiling at $12.394 trillion.

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The vote was 218-214, but Democratic leaders had to sweat it out. As the voting clock ticked down to zero, the bill was losing, 203-208.

Thirty-nine Democrats rejected the measure and not one Republican voted for it. Three members, Reps. George Radanovich (R-Calif.), Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Bill Young (R-Fla.), did not vote.

Most of the Democrats who voted against the debt increase are expected to face challenging reelection races.

Three of the four Democrats running for the Senate, Reps. Paul Hodes (N.H.), Kendrick Meek (Fla.) and Charlie Melancon (La.), voted no. Rep. Joe Sestak (Pa.), who is running against Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) in the Democratic primary, voted yes.

In the lead-up to the vote, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) acknowledged that he had voted against lifting the debt limit when Republicans controlled Congress. He admitted fault, labeling those votes as “votes of demagoguery,” imploring his colleagues to back the measure.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said extending the borrowing authority simply allows the federal government to “pile even more irresponsible debt onto future generations.”

Democratic leaders said the limit needed to be raised to prevent the nation from defaulting on its debts. They have justified the spending as necessary to pull the nation out of recession. But Democrats facing tough reelections are growing increasingly concerned that deficit spending could be used against them in the 2010 election.

As evidence of the toxicity of the issue, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent out news releases within minutes of the vote, attacking nearly 50 Democrats in conservative districts for giving “party leaders a $300 billion blank check.”

Leaders had hoped to pass a $1.8 trillion increase in the debt limit that would last beyond the November elections. But centrist Democrats in the Senate balked, refusing to support it without creating a special commission on reducing the nation’s debt.

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Hoyer backs such a commission, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and some House and Senate chairmen oppose it.

To allow lawmakers to go home for the Christmas recess, the House and Senate settled on a $300 billion increase in the debt that will last only a few months. That puts off the debate until February.

As the close vote concluded, Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) jokingly waved a red card in the well of the House. Red cards are handed in at the desk to change a vote from yes to no.

This story was updated at 8 p.m.

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