WASHINGTON (AP) — Must-pass legislation to allow the government to borrow money to pay its bills is on the brink or clearing Congress for President Barack Obama's signature.
Senate passage of the measure is guaranteed after the chamber voted 67-31 to advance the legislation over a filibuster hurdle insisted upon by Texas Republican Ted Cruz that forced five Republicans to vote to advance the legislation. A final vote is underway.
The measure appeared in danger until the Senate's top two Republicans — each facing a tea party challenge — cast aye votes. Several other Republicans then switched their votes to yes in solidarity.
The legislation would permit the Treasury Department to borrow normally for another 13 months and then reset the government's borrowing cap, currently set at $17.2 trillion, after that.
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Congress appears on track to send President Barack Obama must-do legislation to extend Treasury's borrowing authority without any concessions from the White House.
Senate leaders scheduled a vote Wednesday afternoon before an expected snowstorm hits the capital. The GOP-controlled House passed the measure Tuesday, 221-201, with Republicans supplying only a handful of votes.
The measure would permit the Treasury Department to borrow normally for another 13 months and then reset the government's borrowing cap, currently set at $17.2 trillion, after that.
Quick action on the debt limit bill stands in contrast to lengthy showdowns in 2012 and last fall when Republicans sought to use the critically necessary measure as leverage to win concessions from Obama. They succeeded in 2011, winning about $2 trillion in spending cuts, but Obama has been unwilling to negotiate over the debt limit since his re-election, and Wednesday's legislation is the third consecutive debt measure passed without White House concessions.
Republicans have been less confrontational after October's 16-day partial government shutdown sent GOP poll numbers skidding and chastened the party's tea party faction. Republicans have instead sought to focus voters' attention on the implementation and effects of Obama's health care law.
The measure is required so that the government can borrow to pay all of its bills, including Social Security benefits, federal salaries, payments to Medicare and Medicaid providers and interest on the accumulated debt. Congress has never failed to act to prevent a default on U.S. obligations, which most experts say would spook financial markets and spike interest rates.
The measure is likely to squeak through the Senate, where most Republicans say any increase in the debt ceiling should be accompanied by cuts to the spiraling costs of costly benefit programs like Medicare.
"We need some reform before we raise the debt ceiling. We need to demonstrate that we are taking steps that will reduce the accumulation of debt in the future," said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, top Republican on the Budget Committee. "And the president and the Democratic Senate have just flatly refused. So they've just said, 'We'll accept no restraint on spending'."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a tea party favorite, forced the chamber to overcome a 60-vote filibuster threshold in order to pass the bill. That's irking some Republicans since it'll require at least five GOP votes to advance the bill.
"I'm not going to talk about that," said Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, when asked if Republicans are annoyed with Cruz.
"In my view, every Republican should stand together against raising the debt ceiling without meaningful structural reforms to rein in our out of control spending," Cruz said.
Passage of the debt limit measure without any extraneous issues comes after House GOP leaders tried for weeks to find a formula to pass a version of their own that included Republican agenda items like approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and repeal of an element of the health care law. But a sizable faction of House Republicans simply refuse to vote for any increase in the government's borrowing abilities, which forced House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to turn to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to pass the measure on the strength of Democrats.
The debt measure permits Treasury to borrow regularly through March 15, 2015, putting the issue off until after the November elections and setting it up for the new Congress to handle next year. If Republicans take over the Senate, they're likely to insist on linking the debt ceiling to spending cuts and other GOP agenda items, but for now at least, the issue is being handled the old fashioned way, with the party of the incumbent president being responsible for supplying the votes to pass it but with the minority party not standing in the way.
"I think we will go back to the responsible way of making sure that our country does not default," said Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Senate action Wednesday would safely clear the debt issue off of Washington's plate weeks in advance of the Feb. 27 deadline set last week by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. The debt limit was reset to $17.2 trillion after a four-month suspension of the prior, $16.7 trillion limit expired last Friday. Lew promptly began employing accounting maneuvers to buy time for Congress to act.