NBC News and news services
updated 5/31/2011 7:56:28 PM ET 2011-05-31T23:56:28

House Republicans dealt defeat to their own proposal for a $2.4 trillion increase in the country's debt limit Tuesday, a political gambit designed to reinforce a demand for spending cuts to accompany any increase in government borrowing.

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The vote was lopsided, with just 97 in favor of the measure and 318 against.

House Democrats accused the Republicans of political demagoguery, while the Obama administration maneuvered to avoid taking sides — or giving offense to majority Republicans.

The debate was brief, occasionally impassioned and set a standard of sorts for public theater, particularly at a time when private negotiations continue among the administration and key lawmakers on the deficit cuts Republicans have demanded.

The bill "will and must fail," said Republican Rep. Dave Camp, the House Ways and Means Committee chairman who noted he had helped write the very measure he was criticizing.

"I consider defeating an unconditional increase to be a success, because it sends a clear and critical message that the Congress has finally recognized we must immediately begin to rein in America's affection for deficit spending," he said.

But Democrat Rep. Sander Levin accused Republicans of a "ploy so egregious that (they) have had to spend the last week pleading with Wall Street not to take it seriously and risk our economic recovery."

Wall Street appeared to pay little if any attention. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed ahead 128 points for the day.

Tuesday's vote would allowed Tea Party-backed Republicans to go on record against an increase in the debt ceiling, especially since it won't be accompanied by big spending cuts that GOP leaders are demanding.

"Tonight's vote shows the House is listening to the American people," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a prepared statement released after the vote and obtained by NBC News. "The Obama administration and congressional Democrats have repeatedly asked for a debt limit hike without any spending cuts and budget reforms, and the American people simply will not tolerate it."

Such action will "hurt our economy and destroy more jobs, Boehner said.

"We need to create a better environment for private-sector job growth by stopping Washington from spending money it doesn't have, not by raising taxes and adding more debt onto the backs of our kids and grandkids."

Story: Biden: Revenues needed as part of debt limit bill

Levin other Democrats accused Republicans of attempting to draw attention away from their controversial plan to turn Medicare, the government's popular health care program for the elderly, into a program in which seniors purchase private insurance coverage.

The proceedings occurred roughly two months before the date Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has said the debt limit must be raised. If no action is taken by Aug. 2, he has warned, the government could default on its obligations and risk turmoil that might plunge the nation into another recession or even an economic depression.

All 97 votes in favor of the measure were cast by Democrats, totaling less than a majority and far under the two-thirds support needed for passage.

Senate rejects Ryan budget; vote puts GOP on the spot

Republicans, who are scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House on Wednesday, signaled in advance that the debt limit vote did not portend a final refusal to grant an increase.

For its part, the administration appeared eager to avoid criticizing Republicans.

"It's fine, it's fine," presidential press secretary Jay Carney said when asked about the Republican decision to tie spending cuts with more borrowing.

"We believe they should not be linked because there is no alternative that's acceptable to raising the debt ceiling. But we're committed to reducing the deficit," Carney said.

The government has already reached the limit of its borrowing authority, $14.3 trillion, and the Treasury is using a series of extraordinary maneuvers to meet financial obligations.

By no longer would making investments in two big pension funds for federal workers and beginning to withdraw current investments, for example, the Treasury created $214 billion in additional borrowing headroom.

At the same time, the Obama administration and congressional leaders are at work trying to produce a deficit-reduction agreement in excess of $1 trillion to meet Republican demands for spending cuts.

Political maneuvering on legislation to raise the debt limit has become common in recent years, as federal deficits have soared and presidents of both political parties have been forced to seek authority to borrow additional trillions of dollars.

However, House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, announced months ago that he would demand spending cuts as a condition for passage.

"It's true that allowing America to default would be irresponsible," he said on May 9 in a speech to the Economic Club of New York. "But it would be more irresponsible to raise the debt limit without simultaneously taking dramatic steps to reduce spending and to reform the budget process."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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