House Declines to Raise Debt Ceiling, Sets Table for Debate

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In an unsurprising vote, Republicans block the president's wishes for a stand-alone hike in the federal limit

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The House voted 97-318 on Tuesday to reject a bill to allow a $2.4 trillion hike in the nation's debt limit without accompanying spending cuts. The pre-ordained, and entirely unsurprising, outcome was embraced by the Republican majority as a clear message of the measure's unpopularity among the American people, while Democrats derided it as a "sham."

"The fact is that what's happening on this floor is not serious," said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Added House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson, D-Conn.: "It's politics. We get it. It's a sham."

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had a different view, saying the vote shows the House "is listening to the American people."

"The Obama administration and Congressional Democrats have repeatedly asked for a debt-limit hike without any spending cuts and budget reforms, and the American people simply will not tolerate it," said Boehner.

The bill's defeat -- not a single Republican voted for it -- now sets the stage for meetings between President Obama and the entire House Republican Conference on Wednesday at the White House, and a separate meeting between Obama and House Democrats on Thursday. Seven lawmakers voted only "present."

The Treasury Department has said Congress must take some action in regard to lifting the current $14.3 trillion debt ceiling by August 2, in order to avoid default and to keep the nation paying its bills. At least a $2 trillion increase is needed through 2012, Treasury has said.

Obama and some Democrats have been seeking a debt-limit increase not tied to spending cuts or reforms, which they argued should be determined separately as part of ongoing negotiations between Congress and the White House. Republicans counter that any debt-limit increase must be accompanied by spending cuts.

Republicans did not deny that they had employed some political choreography in what was a guaranteed defeat of the bill, but they insisted that it demonstrates support for their position that any debt-limit hike must be accompanied by deep spending cuts.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman David Camp, R-Mich., even declared on the House floor prior to the vote that the legislation "will and must fail.... Today we are making clear that Republicans will not accept an increase in our nation's debt limit without substantial spending cuts and real budgetary reforms."

That desired outcome was doubly assured by their placement of the bill on the suspension calendar, a procedure that allowed little debate, no amendments, and would have required two-thirds of the House to approve it for passage.

Democrats expressed outrage that, in their words, such an important vote was held under these circumstances.

Before the vote, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., called it a "political charade," and told reporters that he was advising his members to either vote "no' or "present" -- even if they supported the bill -- so as not to "subject themselves" to the TV ads and other political attacks that Republicans would bring against them.

Image credit: Harry Hamburg/AP

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Billy House

Bill House is a staff writer (Congress) for National Journal.

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