WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats needed all 60 votes at their disposal Thursday to muscle through legislation allowing the government to go $1.9 trillion deeper in debt.
Democratic leaders were able to prevail on the politically volatile 60-39 vote only because Republican Sen.-elect Scott Brown of Massachusetts has yet to be seated. Republicans had insisted on a 60-vote, super-majority threshhold to pass the measure. An earlier test vote succeeded on a 60-40 vote.
The measure would put the government on track for a national debt of $14.3 trillion — about $45,000 for every American — and it served as a vivid reminder of the United States' dire fiscal straits.
The current $12.4 trillion debt ceiling — the limit Congress sets on government borrowing — is expected to be reached in mid-February.
Congress has never allowed the United States to default on its obligations, which would roil markets and likely cause the government to lose its AAA credit rating.
"We have gone to the restaurant, we have eaten the meal. Now the only question is whether the government will ... pay the bill," said Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.
Democrats had to scramble to approve the plan, so they won't have to vote on another increase until after the midterm elections this fall. The House must still vote on the measure before it is sent to Obama for his signature.
The task was made more difficult last week when Brown won the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat from Massachusetts. On Feb. 11, when Brown plans to take office, the Democrats' majority shrinks to 59 and the GOP will have a 41-vote ability to block what it doesn't like in Obama's and Democratic leaders' agendas.
"It took 200 years to build the federal debt to a total of $1.9 trillion," Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said. "Now the majority wants to increase the current limit ... by $1.9 trillion so that we can finance the government's borrowing binge long enough to get us past the November 2010 elections."
Republicans blame recent generous spending bills enacted by the Democratic-controlled Congress for driving up the debt. Those measures, however, are just one relatively small part of the problem. The far bigger element is a sharp drop-off in tax revenues because of the recession and the economy's slow recovery, as well as higher costs, since more people are taking unemployment benefits and food stamps in tough times.
As part of the debt ceiling bill, the Senate also voted on new "pay-as-you-go" budget rules to make it more difficult for the government to run up its deficit. The new rules attempt to curb the spiraling budget deficit by requiring spending increases or tax cuts to be "paid for" by Congress with cuts to health programs, farm subsidies and veterans' pensions or tax increases.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., whose own re-election is in danger this fall, reversed course and came out in support of the new rules after moderate "Blue Dog" Democrats in the House insisted on them as condition for passing a new $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.
Obama's Democratic allies in the Senate rejected a plan attempting to adopt a modified version of the president's proposal to freeze spending on domestic spending passed by Congress in annual spending bills.
A 56-strong majority of senators supported the plan, but it failed because 60 votes were required. It serves as a marker for later this year when Congress passes its budget.
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