By Walter Alarkon - 01/27/10 11:20 PM EST
Senate Democrats will vote to increase the nation’s debt limit to a
record $14.3 trillion Thursday, one day after President Barack Obama
emphasizes fiscal responsibility in his State of the Union address.
The Senate will vote to push the federal debt ceiling up by $1.9 trillion. Without the hike, the government could hit its borrowing limit by mid-February.
To make it easier for his party, especially centrists, Obama was expected to announce in his State of the Union address Wednesday that he would use an executive order to create a bipartisan fiscal commission to recommend cuts to entitlement programs.
Democratic fears about voting to increase the national debt were clear in the last vote, on Christmas Eve, when the Senate raised the ceiling by several hundred billion dollars.
Republican Sen. George Voinovich (Ohio), who is retiring at the end of this Congress, provided the 60th vote necessary to move the measure forward over GOP opposition.
Democrats needed Voinovich because they lost centrist Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.), who is up for reelection this year. Bayh, the only Democrat to oppose the debt limit increase in December, has yet to commit to the proposed $1.9 trillion hike.
Republicans aren’t going to make it any easier for Democrats. GOP members are seeking to hold their conference together in order to pin the debt woes on the majority party.
“Democrats will have a tough time finding a Republican who thinks it's a good idea to hike the debt ceiling by a record amount while this administration continues to spend at an alarming rate," a Senate GOP aide said.
Voinovich and other Republicans have yet to commit to backing the debt limit increase Thursday.
If the Senate approves the hike to the nation’s debt, it would not have to deal with the issue again until after November’s election.
Bayh said that he couldn't support the previous increase because Congress didn't have a “credible process” to restrain spending.
Obama’s announcement of a fiscal commission could bring him over.
Bayh is part of a group of nearly a dozen centrist Democrats who have linked their votes for the debt limit increase to Congress putting in place a special legislative process for fiscal reforms. Two members of the group, Bayh and freshman Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), face reelection this year.
The centrist group had backed an effort to pass the bipartisan fiscal commission proposed by Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), but an amendment to create the panel failed in a Senate vote Tuesday. The panel would have produced a fiscal reform plan that would have been put to a vote by Congress.
With lawmakers unable to pass a commission, the centrists have been negotiating with the White House and senior House Democrats to convince Obama to create the fiscal panel himself.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she could back the creation of the panel only if Senate Democrats pass a statutory pay-as-you-go measure requiring that increases in mandatory spending be offset by tax hikes or spending cuts.
As a result, the Senate will vote Thursday on an amendment attaching a statutory pay-go measure to the debt limit increase. The pay-go proposal is similar to one that passed the House last July.
Pelosi and House Democratic committee chairmen had opposed the fiscal commission, fearing that it would put power over long-term fiscal policy, including the future of entitlement programs, spending levels and taxes, in the hands of a small group of lawmakers.
House Democrats are “hopeful for a bipartisan vote,” according to a Democratic aide, who noted that GOP Sens. Voinovich, Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine) and John McCain (Ariz.) previously have voted for pay-go measures.
Some Senate Democratic votes are in doubt.
Conrad had opposed the House pay-go measure because it didn't apply to expensive extensions of 2009 estate tax levels, middle-class tax cuts, current Medicare doctor payment rates and a patch keeping the Alternative Minimum Tax from hitting middle-income Americans. The Senate version, introduced by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), included the exemptions but called for most of them to expire within five years or less. The exemptions in the House bill would be permanent.
Conrad said Tuesday that his vote on the debt limit increase will depend on the agreement for the commission, which he said has yet to be finalized.