updated 6/24/2004 2:31:41 PM ET 2004-06-24T18:31:41

It looks like House Republicans may have to find a different way to avoid a direct vote this election year on raising the legal limit on federal borrowing.

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Two days ago, the House tucked into the popular defense spending bill for next year some language that lays the groundwork for a debt ceiling boost. Now, Senate Republicans are promising unhappy Democrats the idea will be dropped from the final compromise defense bill.

In exchange for that pledge, Senate Democrats ended their threat to delay passage of the $416 billion defense spending measure until after Congress’ July 4 recess, members of both parties said. Instead, Senate passage of the defense bill was expected by Friday, when the break begins.

The big losers in the deal were House Republicans, who are eager to avoid a direct vote on increasing the current $7.4 trillion debt ceiling.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who helped reach the deal, said he told House leaders about it Thursday morning.

“They did not agree, but they did understand my position,” he said.

The debt — the government’s accumulated red ink — has resumed growing rapidly again after a lull that accompanied the four annual surpluses of the late 1990s. Under President Bush, the annual deficit set a record last year of $375 billion and is expected to surpass $400 billion this year.

The current debt limit is expected to be reached this summer. Treasury officials have told lawmakers that by dipping into cash accounts, they might be able to postpone the need for a new legal borrowing limit until after the November elections

Republicans blame the weak economy and costs of fighting wars for the shortfalls, but are eager to avoid a prolonged, campaign-season debate on the subject. Just as ardently, Democrats would like to discuss the subject at length.

“This is a tough vote. I can understand how the Republican leadership ... would like to see that language slipped in” to the defense bill, said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who was also involved in the talks.

“The American people are entitled to have a debate” on the debt ceiling, he said.

Stevens announced the agreement on the Senate floor Thursday. “I can commit” that the final version of the defense spending bill will not have the debt-limit language, he said.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., signaled that the decision would help speed passage of the defense measure.

“The debt limit would have been extremely counterproductive, and would have prevented us from doing our work,” Daschle said.

Republicans want to send the bill to Bush before lawmakers begin a six-week summer break in late July, for fear that the costs of war in Iraq might make some Pentagon accounts run low.

No one is willing to let the debt limit be breached because that could prompt an unprecedented federal default, which could rock the world economy.

House rules let the chamber avoid a direct vote on raising the debt limit if Congress approves a federal budget for the coming year. But a House-Senate dispute over curbing tax cuts has made passage of a $2.4 trillion budget this year highly unlikely, forcing GOP leaders to find a different strategy.

Congress’ budget envisions raising the borrowing cap by $690 billion — perhaps enough to provide enough cash for the government for nearly another year.

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