By Walter Alarkon - 09/29/09 10:00 AM EDT
Senate Democrats are expected to delay a vote to increase the debt limit to $13 trillion, a move designed to avoid having the debate during the healthcare reform battle.
Though Democrats have said that their healthcare proposals won’t add to the debt, Republicans have argued that the increase in government spending will lead to more red ink.
Senate Republicans plan to press the issue by offering a series of amendments.
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, said that he has been asked by Senate GOP leaders to propose amendments to the debt-limit increase that would curtail both discretionary and entitlement spending.
GOP senators believe that the healthcare push and the debt limit vote serve as the perfect occasion to highlight Democratic budgets, which project deficits above $700 billion for the next decade.
“I have voted for every debt-limit increase because that’s what you have to do,” Gregg said. “But this limit increase comes in an entirely different context. There’s no tomorrow.”
The Obama administration had asked the Senate to extend the debt limit by mid-October to ensure it does not rise above its limit. But now it appears likely that the debt will not reach the existing limit until November.
“We have time,” Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, told The Hill.
The U.S. debt subject to the limit stood at $11.77 trillion last Thursday.
Congress raised the debt limit from $11.3 trillion to $12.1 trillion in February, attaching the increase to the $787 billion stimulus bill. Foreseeing the need for another increase due to the expected record $1.6 trillion deficit in 2009, the House voted again to increase the limit to $13 trillion in the budget resolution that passed in April. The Senate would likely adopt the same number.
The Senate could ease passage of the debt-limit increase by attaching it to one of the remaining appropriations bills, which often receive bipartisan support, said Stan Collender, a former Democratic congressional budget aide.
But Gregg said that Republicans wouldn’t allow it to pass unnoticed.
“You can’t pass this through the middle of the night,” Gregg said. “I believe it’s time for people to step up and debate this issue [of rising debt]. This is the perfect vehicle [to] do it on.”
The Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over the debt-limit cap, is expected to be tied up with the healthcare debate for weeks. The panel this week is continuing its markup of the healthcare bill proposed by its chairman, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
A Baucus aide said earlier this month that the chairman understands that the debt limit increase is serious and that it “must be addressed thoroughly and in a nonpartisan manner.”
One reason the Senate won’t have to deal with the limit until November is that the Treasury Department has slowed its borrowing. The department said that it would reduce its Supplementary Financing Account to $15 billion “to preserve flexibility” in managing the country’s debt.
There’s little question that lawmakers will raise the limit in the end. If the debt exceeds the cap, the country would default. Business groups that have been wary of more government spending and larger deficits, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, have called on Congress to lift the limit soon.
But the debt limit has turned into a perennial political football in recent years. In 2006, Democrats, including President Barack Obama when he was in the Senate, opposed a debt-limit increase requested by President George W. Bush. They used the occasion to highlight increased spending during a Republican presidency.
“Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren,” Obama said at the time. “America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership.”