The House on Wednesday passed legislation giving the federal government the ability to borrow a whopping $290 billion to finance its operations for just six additional weeks.
The 218-214 vote sends the must-pass bill to the Senate, which is expected to approve it as its last act before adjourning for the year. The alternative would be a market-rattling, first-ever default on U.S. obligations.
The measure is needed as a result of the out-of-control budget deficit, which registered $1.4 trillion for the budget year that ended in September. The current debt ceiling is $12.1 trillion and is set to be reached by Dec. 31.
Democrats had hoped to pass a far larger increase of almost $2 trillion to avoid another vote before next year's midterm elections — and to wrap the increase into the popular defense appropriations bill to give some political cover.
But that plan fell apart amid opposition from about a dozen Senate Democratic moderates, who say they will refuse to vote for a debt limit increase unless it is accompanied by legislation to establish a new bipartisan task force to come up with a plan to curb the deficit. That idea is opposed by Democratic leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Wednesday's bill delays the showdown in February.
Another complicating factor is moderate "Blue Dog" Democrats, who are demanding a "pay-as-you-go" budget law aimed at ensuring that new tax cuts or new spending programs don't increase deficits. Otherwise, they won't vote for the next debt increase.
The Senate is generally opposed to the idea, even though it was the law of the land for more than a decade.
Debate over the measure broke, predictably, along partisan lines. Because Democrats control both Congress and the White House, it was their job to muster the votes required to advance the bill, even though much of the increase is required due to economic conditions inherited by President Barack Obama as he took office. The down economy has cut tax revenues sharply.
Republicans — who helped supply votes to increase the debt ceiling just last year — unanimously opposed the legislation, which is required to issue new debt to pay for federal operations and deposit up to $50 billion into the Social Security trust funds.
"We should not be asking for more credit, we should be developing a plan to pay down our deficit so that future generations are not trapped under this mountain of debt," said Rep Dave Camp, R-Mich.
"The bottom line is, having the government shut down is not an option," said Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo.
House Democrats were furious with Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who, because of his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, refused a request from his leadership to support putting the short-term increase in the debt limit into the defense measure. His move required his fellow Democrats in both House and Senate to vote on the measure without accompanying political cover.
"It sucks," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif. "I don't think Feingold could get five votes for anything right now."