WASHINGTON — In the past, members of Congress never have been particularly eager to remind the public that they regularly vote to raise the ceiling on the national debt, which now exceeds $12 trillion.
The debt has more than doubled since 2002, and in the last two years it's been rising at a clip of more than $3.8 billion a day. Each U.S. citizen now has a share that's estimated at more than $39,000.
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With so much red ink, Congress has been racing to keep up. In the last eight years, members have voted seven times to increase the statutory debt limit to allow more borrowing, oftentimes doing it quietly, attaching the measure to broader spending bills to avoid an unpleasant debate.
That could change in December, when Senate Democrats and Republicans alike are expected to resist the latest plan to raise the ceiling by nearly $1 trillion.
The vote on increasing the debt will come just as Congress tries to put the finishing touches on a trillion-dollar plan to overhaul the nation's health care system and President Barack Obama considers a possible escalation in the war in Afghanistan that could cost another trillion dollars over the next 10 years.
A bipartisan group of more than a dozen senators is threatening to vote against an increase in the debt limit unless Congress passes a new deficit-fighting plan.
"I will not vote for raising the debt limit without a vehicle to handle this. ... This is our moment," California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said.
She and nine other senators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., asking that Congress create a special commission to make recommendations that then could be decided by an up-or-down vote.
Feinstein said it could be similar to the process for closing military bases, in which members must vote to take or leave the entire package. The senators who joined Feinstein are Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado, Mark Begich of Alaska, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Mark Warner of Virginia, Bill Nelson of Florida, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and independent Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.
Republican Sens. George Voinovich of Ohio and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire have promoted the effort as well. Feinstein and Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas also have teamed up to introduce a bill that would create a permanent commission.
Some liberals have criticized the idea, fearing that it would take away too much power from Congress and turn it over to an independent commission.
Increasing the statutory debt limit has become an increasingly difficult vote for many lawmakers: If they failed to raise the ceiling, the government would go broke and couldn't make payments for Social Security and other programs. If they raise it, they look like spendthrifts who can't balance a budget.
The Obama administration has asked Congress to raise the debt ceiling, and Treasury Department officials said earlier this month that they'd been working with congressional leaders behind the scenes to get the job done. While no date has been set for a final vote, it's expected to come up sometime before Christmas, before members adjourn for the year.
"Nobody really knows. My bet is that it will happen sometime on Dec. 24, when Santa goes down the chimney," said Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that promotes fiscal responsibility.
In the meantime, with the national debt rising, Bixby said, the U.S. has no choice but to continue to borrow more and more money.
"That means that more of our future national income is mortgaged by all the borrowing we're having to do from abroad," he said, "and at some point, it will have negative economic consequences."
However, Bixby said the vote to raise the debt limit had become "political theater" on Capitol Hill, with most Democrats and Republicans blaming each other and merely changing their speeches depending on which party was in power.
"They exchange scripts," he said. "The party in power knows that the debt limit has to go up; there's no choice. So they say we have to do the responsible thing and raise the debt limit and, besides, it's not our fault because the last people who were here screwed things up and we're just cleaning up their mess. And the party out of power says this just shows how irresponsible the current administration is in running up this horrible debt."
McClatchy Newspapers 2009