The timing could not be much better for Democrats: The Republican-led Senate will vote this week on whether to let federal borrowing grow by an unprecedented $984 billion, even as it considers a costly tax cut that President Bush wants.
The Senate is certain to approve an increase in the debt limit to avert a first-ever government default, probably after beating back every Democratic amendment. Even so, with debate beginning as early as Thursday, Democrats see a chance to argue that Mr. Bush has mismanaged the economy and the budget.
Their goal is to draw attention to the huge annual federal deficits that have re-emerged — and are expected to stretch indefinitely into the future — after four straight surpluses under President Clinton. Democrats say the chief culprit is the big tax reductions Bush won in 2001, and the latest tax package will only make matters worse.
"The Bush economic plan has failed," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "It has failed to revive the economy, and it's driven us deeper into debt."
Republicans say they expect Congress to approve the debt limit increase and the tax cut before leaving at week's end for a weeklong Memorial Day recess. Though this year's deficit is on track to surpass $300 billion for the first time, Republicans say the public will realize that the GOP has a plan for reviving the languid economy with a dose of fresh tax cuts.
"They'll want to play that political game," Sen. George Allen, R-Va., who heads his party's effort to elect Republican senators, said of Democrats. "But most Americans see we care about creating job opportunities."
The bill raising the debt limit is needed because the government has reached its current $6.4 trillion borrowing cap. The Treasury Department says it has run out of room for freeing up cash by shifting funds from various federal accounts, and must have the legal authority to borrow more money by May 28.
The $984 billion increase, to $7.38 trillion, would be the largest ever.
Underlining how rapidly the government's books are deteriorating, Congress boosted the old debt limit by $450 billion only last year, following several years in which surpluses stabilized and actually shrank the debt slightly.
Despite the mammoth numbers, Democrats will have a tough time scoring many political points, judging from polls and political professionals. The public is focused on the ailing economy and the threat of terrorism, and is paying scant attention to budget problems.
"People think there are extraordinary circumstances that have produced the deficit. In that sense, it has taken away the edge" of federal red ink as an issue, said Democratic consultant Celinda Lake.
The public is about evenly split on Bush's handling of the economy, a measure that consistently has been far lower than his handling of the campaign against terrorism. Even so, Bush's job approval rating has dropped from 71 percent in April to 62 percent in May, according to an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday. His job approval had dipped into the 50s before the war with Iraq, when it spiked back into the low 70s.
Republicans want as little as possible to do with the borrowing spree because it angers many conservatives who form the base of their party.
Accentuating that, the GOP-run House reinstated a rule this year -- initiated years ago by Democrats — that makes House approval of an increased debt limit automatic when Congress completes the final version of its annual budget. Thus, the House never had a direct vote this year on boosting borrowing, but has signed off on doing so.
In another sign of the political heat involved, the proposed $984 billion boost likely would provide enough money to carry the government until late next year. That would let Congress avoid the issue again until after the November 2004 elections, when Bush will seek re-election and the GOP will defend its House and Senate majorities.
Democrats plan an amendment limiting the borrowing increase to about $350 billion, the same as the 11-year price tag of the tax bill Republicans are pushing through Congress. Democrats hope this would help voters relate the tax bill to federal borrowing, and if successful force lawmakers to address the issue anew this fall, giving Democrats yet another chance to highlight it.
Senate Democrats will toss as many as 12 amendments at the measure, with passage of any forcing a reluctant House to finally vote on the legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Wednesday that he believes he has the votes to fend off Democratic amendments and keep the bill from returning to the House. He spoke just six weeks after angering House GOP leaders by not telling them about a deal he cut with moderate senators to limit the size of the tax cut bill.