Republicans set stage for raising debt limit

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Unwilling to risk spooking the markets, and leading a fractured GOP majority, House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday stepped back from a confrontation with Democrats to let Congress vote on increasing the government’s borrowing cap without trying to extract any concessions from the White House.

The move risks more displeasure from the tea party but came after most Republicans in the House made clear they had no taste for another high-stakes fight with President Barack Obama over the nation’s debt ceiling, which must be raised so the government can borrow money to pay all of its bills.

A vote was scheduled for Tuesday evening, with Democrats lined up to provide the bulk of support to pass the measure; the Senate was expected to pass the bill and send it to Obama by the end of the week.

Tuesday’s developments, which many Capitol Hill insiders saw coming, marks a major reversal of the GOP’s strategy of trying to use the debt limit to force spending cuts or other concessions on Obama. The president yielded to such demands in 2011 — before his re-election — but has since boxed in Republicans by refusing to negotiate.

Boehner, R-Ohio, made the announcement after conservatives failed to rally around his latest plan, floated Monday, to tie lifting the debt ceiling to a measure to reverse cuts to military pensions that were enacted less than two months ago. Earlier plans to tie a debt cap increase to approval of the Keystone XL pipeline or repeal of part of the new health care law failed as well, stymied by a group of hard line conservatives who vowed never to vote for increasing the government’s debt, which stands at more than $17 trillion.

The measure does not raise the debt limit by a set amount but would suspend it through March 15 of next year to allow Treasury to borrow the money it needs to pay bills like Social Security benefits, payments on government debt, and checks for federal workers.

The move reflects a return to the old ways of handling the politically tricky debt ceiling vote in which the president’s party is expected to carry most of the load to pass it.

“We’ll let the Democrats put the votes up,” the speaker said. “We’ll put a minimum number of (GOP) votes up to get it passed.”

“That’s how it’s supposed to work,” said Vice President Joe Biden at the Capitol after swearing in the newest senator, John Walsh, D-Mont.

Boehner said his inability to assemble 218 GOP votes — enough to win a floor vote — for any debt limit plan left him no alternative but to turn to Democrats.

“When you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing,” Boehner said. “We’ve seen that before and we see it again.” He said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., promised him sweeping Democratic support in the vote. More than 180 Democrats have signed a letter pledging to vote for a clean increase in the debt cap.

The White House applauded the move. Gene Sperling, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, said the administration hopes Tuesday’s development means “that the tactic of threatening default or threatening the full faith and credit of the United States for budget debates is over, off the table and never is going to happen again. And if so that would, I think, be a boost for confidence and investment in the US.”

Obama’s refusal to negotiate, GOP disunity, and Boehner’s determination to avoid the possibility of a market-cratering default on U.S. obligations gave the Ohio Republican little choice but to announce the vote on a “clean” debt ceiling increase.

The announcement amounted to resigned defeat for a party that has sought to use must-pass debt ceiling measures as leverage to force spending cuts on Democrats. Republicans won more than $2 trillion in spending cuts in a 2011 showdown, but gave Obama two debt limit increases last year with only modest add-ons.

The House planned to vote on separate legislation to restore full cost-of-living increases that were to have been cut by 1 percent for retirees under 62. The cuts, which had just passed in December, were backed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Repealing them would cost $7 billion over the coming decade, the Congressional Budget Office said Monday.

The reduction sparked an uproar among advocates for veterans, and lawmakers in both parties scrambled to repeal it.

In fact, the Senate voted 94-0 on Monday to advance a repeal of the military cost-of-living cuts, though Democrats and Republicans still disagree over whether to replace the pension curbs with cuts elsewhere in the government’s $3.5 trillion budget.

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