House Democrats on Thursday cleared a massive $1.9 trillion increase to the debt limit and a statutory pay-as-you-go bill aimed at preventing even more red ink.
A procedural motion on the increase in the debt ceiling to roughly $14.3 trillion barely passed on a 217-212 vote. No Republicans voted to move forward with the increase, which was opposed by 37 Democrats, most of them in swing districts who face tough races in November.
A vote to clear the pay-go bill and the debt increase passed on a wider margin, 233-187, again only with Democratic support.
The pay-go bill would require that any new mandatory spending, such as new tax cuts or entitlement programs, be offset with revenue through tax hikes or spending cuts. Democrats called it a necessary step toward more balanced budgets, and said it was in place during the 1990s, when the government ran surpluses.
Former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonRepublican spin on Biden is off the mark Bill Clinton shares video update after release from hospital Biden, Democrats risk everything unless they follow the Clinton pivot (they won't) MORE said that Democrats will benefit politically from reinstating the budget enforcement measure.
“I think this is important for our party because it reminds people that for 30 years we've had a better record on the economy than Republicans,” Clinton said in a conference call.
With the federal debt expected to hit its limit this month, the increase to the debt level was needed to allow the government to continue borrowing and avoid default.
Democratic leaders characterized a yes vote on the debt limit motion as a vote for responsibility. They said any member who voted for policies that weren't paid for, such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Medicare prescription drug benefit and stimulus measures under both the Bush and Obama administrations, should feel an obligation to vote for the debt limit increase.
But a handful of Democrats voted against the measure to protest deficits that are expected to average $850 billion over the next decade.
“At some point, we have to put some downward pressure on federal expenditures,” said Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.).
GOP members blasted Democrats for pushing costly policies that will add further to the country's red ink, such as the $787 billion stimulus, and dismissed the Democrats’ pay-go law as ineffective.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) accused Democrats of doing one thing with the pay-go bill and another by allowing more debt.
Democrats are seeking to “run up the debt not only to a level that is unprecedented, but unstable,” he said.
The pay-go law won’t apply to several expensive policies that Democrats plan to extend: the middle-class tax cuts passed during the Bush administration, a fix to the Alternative Minimum Tax to keep it from hitting middle-income Americans, Medicare doctor payments and the 2009 estate and gift tax rates. Lawmakers, however, will eventually have to find a way to pay for all but the Bush-era tax cuts, as the exemptions for the other policies end in five years or less.
Fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats had told Democratic leaders last year that they would support big-ticket items, such as the $787 billion stimulus and the $3.5 trillion 2010 budget, only if they committed to passing a statutory pay-go bill. Blue Dogs broke out in applause Thursday in the House chamber when the pay-go vote was gaveled down by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
“You hear a lot from the other side about how this Congress is spending money excessively, but they offer no real solutions to get us back on a pathway to fiscal responsibility," said Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), a senior Blue Dog. "This is the proven method to get us back on that path."
Jared Allen contributed to this article