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Debt Limit Bill Passed in House

The House passed legislation Wednesday to suspend the limit on the nation’s borrowing authority for nearly four months, a move that would eliminate the threat of a government default and give lawmakers more time to address other looming budget deadlines.

House lawmakers voted 285-144 to pass the bill (HR 325), with 86 Democrats supporting the measure and 33 Republicans opposing it. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday morning that his chamber would clear the bill for the president’s signature. And although the White House would prefer a long-term extension of borrowing authority, President Barack Obama has said he would not oppose the legislation.

The bill would suspend the debt limit through May 18, then automatically increase the current $16.4 trillion ceiling to accommodate additional debt accumulated before that date. Without action, the federal government is due to reach its borrowing ceiling as early as mid-February.

The legislation also would tie congressional pay to passage of a budget plan by suspending salaries of members of the House or Senate if either chamber does not adopt a resolution by April 15. Lawmakers would be paid at the end of the 113th Congress should their pay be delayed.

Congress is confronted with two other upcoming budget deadlines: the automatic spending cuts now scheduled to begin March 1 and the March 27 expiration of the current stopgap spending law (PL 112-175).

GOP leaders, who announced plans for the debt limit measure after a conference retreat last week, have vowed not to cancel the looming across-the-board spending cuts and said the House would adopt a budget resolution that would lead to a balanced budget within 10 years.

Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., called the bill the “first step in forcing Democrats to put forward a budget.” And he clarified that the measure would allow the Treasury Department to pay debts already on the books.

House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said the plan puts Congress on a path to prevent a debt crisis.

“We can’t keep borrowing from our children’s future,” Ryan said. “Our generation of Americans, we are being selfish.”

Many Democrats took to the floor to voice their opposition to the GOP measure, calling it a gimmick.

Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on Ways and Means, said House Republicans “continue to play with economic fire.”

“They’re playing political games with the debt ceiling. And that undermines certainty,” Levin said.

Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said the House is “holding hostage policy in an undemocratic, dictatorial fashion.”

California Democrat George Miller said the bill would put the country on a 90-day leash, a situation that in the past caused a downgrade in the credit rating that drove up the cost of borrowing.

“This bill says if you don’t vote for the Ryan budget  . . .  then we go back to putting the credit of the United States at risk,” Miller said. “The last time the American people looked at the Ryan budget [in the presidential election], they rejected it overwhelmingly.”

Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern called the bill a “gimmick” that delays pay if one chamber does not pass a budget, regardless of whether Congress strikes a deal.

“It doesn’t matter whether the budget is irreconcilable or partisan,” McGovern said. “It doesn’t withhold anybody’s pay; it just delays when you get the check.”

The 27th Amendment prohibits Congress from changing member pay until an intervening election has passed, so the bill could not lawfully revoke salaries entirely. The measure instead provides for the pay to be held in escrow until the end of the 113th Congress.

Jonathan Strong and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this story.