The Republican-led Congress passed legislation Friday allowing government debt to grow by a record $984 billion, brushing past Democrats' attempts to spotlight the federal IOUs that have resumed piling up under President Bush.
The Senate gave the bill final congressional approval by 53-44, only hours after lawmakers had passed $330 billion in new tax cuts through 2013, a major priority for Bush and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Democrats want to link that and other tax cuts Bush has won to the government's mounting debt. But GOP senators were united in an effort to get the measure to the White House — and out of the political limelight — quickly.
Looking to intensify pressure on lawmakers to approve the bill without amendments, Republican leaders did not bring the measure to the Senate floor until the House had left town for a weeklong Memorial Day recess. The House had avoided a direct vote on the debt limit by reviving a rule that made its approval of a borrowing increase automatic when Congress finished its annual budget last month.
"The House is no longer there," said Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo. "The fact is we need to go forward."
With the outcome not in doubt, the debate was a political exercise. Democrats argued that federal interest payments on the mounting debt are draining the budget of money needed for basic federal programs.
"That is a debt tax that every taxpayer has to pay, it is a debt tax that robs this generation and future generations of the ability to make our own fiscal choices," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.
After running annual surpluses during the last four years of the Clinton administration, federal deficits have returned. This year's is expected to well exceed $300 billion, a record, and huge future shortfalls are expected with no end in sight.
Bush's certain signature would boost the government's debt limit to $7.38 trillion, enough to let it borrow money until sometime next year.
The Treasury Department had warned it needed the extension by next week "to preserve the confidence in the U.S. government and to prevent uncertainty that would adversely affect our economic recovery." The current $6.4 trillion limit was breached earlier this year, and Treasury paid its bills by shifting money from government retirement and other funds, maneuvers it said it could not make again.
Failure to extend the borrowing limit could lead to a first-ever federal default — something neither party wants to be blamed for.
By 52-47, the Senate rejected a Democratic amendment that would have limited the increase to $350 billion — the same size as the package of tax cuts and aid to states Congress had approved earlier on Friday. It would also have forced lawmakers to revisit the issue later this year, when Democrats could have used it again to focus on the government's fiscal status.
Another Democratic amendment, defeated by the same margin, would have put the Repubican-controlled Senate on record as opposing any increase in the annual cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients.
Republicans wanted to prevent Democrats from using that vote against GOP incumbents in campaign ads next year.