Senate Democrats needed all the 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 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 massive increase in the debt limit would allow majority Democrats to avoid another vote until after the midterm elections this fall. New estimates released by the Congressional Budget Office on Tuesday show that the U.S. this year could run a deficit matching last year's record $1.4 trillion shortfall.
To win the votes of moderate Democrats, President Barack Obama promised to appoint a special task force to come up with a plan for dealing with the spiraling debt.
And to get the support of moderate "Blue Dog" Democrats in a House vote next week, the measure includes tough new "pay-as-you-go" budget rules to make it harder to run up the deficit with new tax cuts or federal benefit programs. Senate Democrats had been reluctant to approve the new deficit curbs but relented and approved them by a 60-40 vote.
Several Republicans who had earlier voted for the new rules, which would make it more difficult to permanently extend some tax cuts that expire at the end of this year, switched their positions and opposed it.
They include John McCain or Arizona, who's facing a primary battle with former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who's winning support from conservative "tea party" activists.
To make raising the debt ceiling easier for moderates and politically endangered Democrats to swallow amid a populist uprising against government borrowing and spending, Obama promised in his State of the Union address night to appoint a bipartisan task force to come up with a plan .
"I will issue an executive order that will allow us to go forward, because I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans," he said.
The 60 votes Democrats need from their own caucus include those of incumbents facing difficult re-election battles this year as well as longtime opponents of raising the debt limit, such as Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.
The task was made more difficult last week when Brown won the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat. On Feb. 11, when Brown plans to take office, the Democrats' majority shrinks to 59 and the GOP will have the 41 votes it needs to filibuster what it doesn't like in the agendas pushed by Obama and Democratic leaders.
"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."
Democrats and Republicans alike share responsibility for running up the debt, but it falls upon Democrats to pass the measure since they control the government. It makes no difference that Republicans routinely backed increases in the debt when former President George W. Bush was in office.
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.
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