Congress's early task: What to do about national debt ceiling?
A vote to raise the national debt ceiling is always tough, because it casts the majority party as a reckless spender. But Congress must confront the issue, probably Jan. 20, upon lawmakers' return from recess. If the ceiling is not raised, the government will likely run out of funds in February.
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“Congress has no choice but to raise the debt limit, but the fact that they have to take a vote on it does allow a debate on where we are and where we’re headed,” says Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a public-interest group in Arlington, Va., that calls for lower deficits.Skip to next paragraph
“We’re moving into a period of high attention to deficits, similar to 1992 – the only year when deficit reduction was a big issue in a presidential campaign,” Mr. Bixby adds. “Given the importance of independent voters, Democrats realize they have to show some progress on the deficit or there will be a problem.”
It’s a tough call for Democratic leaders. They had hoped to avoid taking up the issue close to the midterm elections. But they also didn’t want an earlier vote on the issue to be a distraction from endgame negotiations over an overhaul of the US healthcare system.
Yet Republicans have seized on that overhaul as a prime example of big federal spending. Healthcare reform, they say, is a government power grab that America can ill afford, especially given the unsustainable rise in federal deficits.
Quest for a fiscal reform measure
Typically, proposals for a significant hike in the debt limit are accompanied by fiscal reforms. In October 2009, 10 moderates in the Senate’s Democratic caucus, concerned about the ongoing surge of new debt on their watch, warned majority leader Harry Reid that they could not back an increase in the debt ceiling unless a commission or reform procedure was enacted to rein in the debt. Their plan: to vote on an amendment to the debt-limit measure that would create an 18-member commission. That group would propose debt reductions that would come before Congress for an up-or-down vote – without the possibility of amendments or a filibuster.
“If the United States doesn’t come up soon with a credible plan to restore the federal budget to balance over the next five to 10 years, the danger is very real that a debt crisis could lead to a major weakening of American power,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. He is cosponsoring the plan with Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the top Republican on the panel. A similar bipartisan proposal is backed by Voinovich, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut.
But many liberal groups, including unions, see the plan as letting an outside, nonelected group usurp congressional prerogatives. They are urging the Senate to reject this proposed amendment.
On the House side, fiscal conservatives in the Democratic caucus have leveraged a commitment from Speaker Nancy Pelosi to allow a floor vote on a measure that would make current pay-as-you-go rules the law of the land.
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