It took legislative acrobatics and some hard swallowing by Democrats, but Congress on Thursday sent President Obama a bill that raises the country's borrowing level by a staggering $1.9 trillion to cover this year's record spending.
After jamming the bill through the Senate last week before they lost their filibuster-proof majority, Democrats used their overwhelming numbers and some legislative maneuvering to push a $14.3 trillion debt ceiling through the House. Democrats got no help from Republicans, and lost the votes of 37 members of their own caucus, squeaking out a 217-212 win.
To make the vote more palatable, Democrats immediately voted to pass pay-as-you-go, or "pay-go," budget rules, which conservative-leaning Democrats have long sought and which their party's leaders promised would keep them from overspending in the future.
"Who could oppose this great idea?" said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. She said she was "so very happy" with the one-two punch.
Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, retorted: "Even if I were a supporter of this bill I wouldn't be proud of it." He said Congress should start cutting spending now instead of raising debt limits and making rules for the future.
The pay-go rules say that new programs or tax cuts must be offset by spending cuts or tax increases elsewhere. If the rules are broken, the White House is forced to make cuts.
The rules can be waived by Congress, and waivers for extending several tax cuts and boosting doctors' payments under Medicare are already included in the bill, leading Republicans to question whether pay-go will have any teeth.
Raising the debt ceiling is always a tough vote for the party in power, and Republicans regularly voted for debt increases when they controlled Congress, but this year has proved to be more difficult than usual for Democrats.
The Democratic caucus is split between moderate members in Republican-leaning districts who are worried about overspending, and liberal members who argue that Democrats have been empowered by the 2008 elections to pursue an expansive agenda.
One point of unity for Democrats is blaming former President George W. Bush for the country's fiscal problems. To drive home that point, they had former President Bill Clinton call into a phone news conference Thursday to talk about the record.
"For the last 30 years we have had a better record on fiscal discipline," he said. He said that adopting the pay-go rules will force Republicans and Democrats to find common ground on appropriate cuts or tax increases for future programs.
Meanwhile, Republicans turned the debate into a referendum on President Obama's first year in office and on Democrats' three years of control in Congress. Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, said Democrats' spending makes Republicans "look like amateurs."
Thursday's $1.9 trillion increase - the largest single jump ever - should last through 2011, meaning Democrats will not have to take another politically dangerous vote until after November's congressional elections.
Democrats had to pass the increase to keep the U.S. from the risk of defaulting.
"If you voted to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, if you voted for tax cuts that went to the wealthiest, if you voted for the Recovery Act, then you have to vote to raise the debt," said Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat.
Moody's, a top credit rating agency, warned this week that the U.S. is nearing a European-style debt crisis that could endanger international confidence in the country's ability to pay its debts.
Also, with China the biggest foreign holder of U.S. debt, lawmakers on both sides worried about the control that gives a potential adversary.
Mr. Obama released a statement praising the House's work and said he expects the pay-go rules to "help usher out an era of irresponsibility and begin putting the country back on a fiscally sustainable path."
Democratic leaders had to allow convoluted voting gymnastics to get the bill passed.
They first had the chamber consider rules for debating the pay-go amendment, but they slipped in a provision that said if the rules were approved the debt limit would automatically be considered to have been raised. But the pay-go rules also would have to pass for the entire package to be sent to the president.
The move was confusing even to the lawmakers who devised it. After the first vote, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, told reporters that the House had just voted to increase the debt limit.
But the Rules Committee warned reporters that both the procedural rules and the pay-go amendment had to pass for the debt limit to be raised.
The vote on the pay-go rules was 233-187, with four liberal Democrats and 11 moderate Democrats joining Republicans in opposing it. If those four liberal Democrats had voted against the initial rule, the entire package would have gone down to defeat.
Mrs. Pelosi said pay-go rules have had bipartisan support in the past. They were first imposed in a deal struck by President George H.W. Bush and a Democratic Congress, then reimposed by Mr. Clinton and a Republican Congress. But they lapsed when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House in 2002.
Deficits grew after 2001, fueled by two tax cuts, two wars and increased domestic spending.
When Democrats took control of Congress in 2007, they wrote pay-go rules into House and Senate procedures, but those did not have the force of law. Spending has grown at record levels since then.
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