WASHINGTON — House Republicans approved Wednesday a three-month suspension of the federal debt limit in a move intended to pressure Senate Democrats to pass a budget in the interim.
The bill passed 285-144 with support from most Republicans and about half of the Democratic caucus. It would permit continued borrowing through May 18 without any approval by Congress of a higher debt limit.
The debt ceiling is a statutory borrowing limit that affects how the federal government pays its bills — if the limit were reached, the U.S. could default on its loans. With enactment of the legislation, that concern will be set aside for the next three months and the Treasury can continue borrowing at a normal pace.
The White House has signaled its support for the short-term fix and top Senate Democrats said they would swiftly pass the bill.
House Democrats said the GOP plan was a political gimmick to improve the Republican position in upcoming negotiations over budget cuts and government funding.
“This proposal does not have certainty, it does not have growth and it does not have my support,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said shortly before the vote.
The bill would also freeze congressional pay if lawmakers do not approve a budget by April 15, the nominal deadline for passage of their budget resolution. The Senate has not passed a budget – an internal planning document — since 2009. The blueprint is an important guide but actual spending flows through appropriations bills.
“Frankly I think its time for the Senate and the White House to produce a budget that will balance over the next ten years,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “It’s time for Congress to get serious about this and this is the first step.”
A separate “No Budget, No Pay” proposal gained traction Wednesday. The idea is to withhold lawmakers’ pay if they fall short in their responsibility to approve a budget.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., promoted the legislation at a news conference with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and five Republican senators in front of a large poster reading “1,365 Days Since The Senate Has Passed A Budget.”
“States do it, counties do it, cities do it, towns do it, businesses do it, families do it, individuals do it and the fact that our federal government ahs not done it in four years,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said about writing a budget.
Broad Republican support for a debt ceiling suspension seemed far from certain just weeks ago.
Tea partiers and conservative Republicans have previously threatened to oppose debt-ceiling increases that were not joined by billions or trillions of dollars in spending cuts. But many Republicans fell in line on Wednesday. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who declined to support Boehner for speaker, even announced a day earlier that he supported the debt ceiling suspension.
A handful of conservative firebrands still voted against the bill, including Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., and Ted Yoho, R-Fla.
Raising the debt limit was once routine on Capitol Hill — Congress has done it 10 times in the past decade. But conservative House Republicans have tried to use the procedure as a means of securing billions of dollars in spending cuts since retaking control of the chamber in 2010.
The U.S. nearly defaulted on its loans in August 2011 after months of fruitless negotiations between the White House and Republican leaders. Congress passed a last-minute deal but the damage was already done: Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating for the first time in history and world markets reacted with a jolt.
Without a pass from Congress, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said recently that the government won’t be able to pay its bills past March.