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House Narrowly Approves Raising Federal Debt Ceiling

Spending: Conservative Republicans had been reluctant to support such a move on the record, but Democrats forced them into a legislative corner.

June 28, 2002|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In an eleventh-hour move to avert a fiscal crunch, the House on Thursday approved by the narrowest of margins President Bush's request for an increase in the legal limit on the government's borrowing authority.

The bill had languished for months while Republicans tried to find a way to approve the request without having to directly vote in favor of increasing the debt.

Many conservative Republicans, while usually supportive of Bush, are loath to be on record as casting such a vote.

The GOP-led House finally approved the measure Thursday night, 215 to 214, in the face of increasingly urgent warnings from Bush and his lieutenants that the Treasury Department would have to resort to extraordinary steps to avoid a government default on payment to bondholders if the debt ceiling were not raised by today.

The debt ceiling needed to be raised to accommodate the growing federal budget deficit, caused by the economic downturn, the tax cuts passed last year and the cost of responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The House vote sends the bill to the White House for Bush's expected signature; the Senate approved the measure two weeks ago. The bill, which authorizes the first debt increase in five years, would raise the current $5.95-trillion debt ceiling by $450 billion--enough to keep the government solvent until after the November elections.

House Republican leaders had been reluctant to bring the measure to a vote. They feared defeat because Democrats were not willing to vote for a bill that they believed was necessitated largely by the GOP tax cut they opposed.

Many Republicans were reluctant to vote for the debt increase because it runs counter to their fiscally conservative instincts. GOP leaders hoped to accommodate them by slipping the debt-limit increase into an emergency spending bill that will soon clear Congress. That bill, which primarily would fund counter-terrorism programs, enjoys wide support.

But the GOP leaders backed away from that strategy when it became clear that Democrats would let them avoid a direct vote on the debt-limit increase only in exchange for increased spending in the anti-terrorism bill. GOP leaders told balky Republicans that price was too high and urged them to support the bill dealing solely with the debt limit.

In Thursday's vote, 212 Republicans and three Democrats voted for the bill. Voting against it were 206 Democrats, six Republicans and two independents.

Democrats used debate on the measure to press their case that the increased borrowing is a metaphor for Republican mismanagement of the budget. The Democrats argued that increasing the debt should not be approved until Congress reconsiders parts of Bush's tax cut.

Republicans responded that Democratic support for spending increases had as much to do with the debt increase as the tax cut and that their refusal to support the bill was an irresponsible political maneuver.

"This is like eating a big meal and walking out on the bill," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

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