Debt-limit vote seen as budget reform lever

House Republicans could be forced to take a politically risky recorded vote to raise the debt ceiling if conservatives get their way.

A number of House and Senate conservatives see this week’s must-pass debt-limit increase as a ticket to long-awaited budget-process reforms, even though joining the issues would put House lawmakers on the spot.

Senate GOP leaders want to discourage or defeat amendments from both the Democratic and Republican sides and clear the $781 billion increase without further action by the House, where a procedural mechanism saved members from casting a separate vote when the chamber passed the debt-limit increase last year.

But Democrats are negotiating for consideration of three amendments, and some conservatives would like to use the legislation as a vehicle for reforms such as the president’s line-item veto proposal or biennial budgeting. Any change would throw the measure back to the House.

House Republican leaders are hoping they do not have to ask the most vulnerable members of their conference to cast a recorded vote to raise the debt cap in an election year.

When asked about the prospect of a floor amendment sending the legislation back to the House, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, “I’d love to see that.”

Reid did not rule out the possibility of Democrats backing an amendment sponsored by Senate conservatives — a fear held by Republican leaders, according to a senior Senate GOP aide.

“There are some things that we would support, yes,” Reid said.

The House circumvented a stand-alone vote on the debt-limit increase last year through a procedural maneuver first advanced by then-Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) and later adopted by Republican leaders. Under the “Gephardt rule” — later nicknamed the “Hastert rule” by then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — the House automatically generates a debt-limit increase upon adoption of the budget conference report.

That parliamentary trick has caused consternation among House conservatives who rail against ever-increasing debt. Some would welcome any chance for the House to debate the measure, even if it causes headaches for party leaders and some of their colleagues.

“A number of conservatives in the House would push to have a more thorough analysis of why we keep having that problem and what we can do to fix it,” an aide to House conservatives said.

But that is not the only view on the south side of the Capitol. “There are probably also a lot of people that would prefer not to have the vote,” the aide said.

Senate Democrats accused the majority of slow-walking the debt-limit increase to shrink the amount of time for debate and limit amendments before the Senate takes a one-week break.

“That’s why … the majority has waited so long,” Reid said on the Senate floor yesterday.

The Treasury Department has warned that the nation will go into default this month if the cap is not increased.

“They don’t have any more tools in their toolbox,” a senior Senate Republican aide said. The administration has told Congress it will run out of operating room March 24, the aide said.

Even as the fiscal 2007 budget is being considered on the Senate floor this week, Congress has not finished work on the fiscal 2006 budget. The debt-limit increase and a five-year package of $70 billion in tax cuts have not been completed.

Democrats have been readying three amendments to the debt legislation. The first, by Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.), the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, would institute pay-as-you-go rules on spending and tax measures. The second, by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), deals with disclosing the debt on federal tax forms. The third, by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), would commission a study of foreign-held debt.

Reid has said that Senate Republicans will have to mine their own ranks to find the votes for a debt-limit increase. Though Democrats hope to see both chambers cast recorded votes on the issue, they have not expressed much confidence that the measure will be amended on the Senate floor and sent back to the House — even through an amendment offered by a conservative Republican.

“I think their leadership will sit on them,” a senior Democratic aide said.