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U.S. Debt Ceiling Raised to $12.4 Trillion

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CBS/AP
Updated 11 a.m. ET

The Senate voted Thursday to raise the ceiling on the government debt to $12.4 trillion, a massive increase over the current limit and a political problem that President Barack Obama has promised to address next year.

The Senate's rare Christmas Eve vote, 60-39, follows House passage last week and raises the debt ceiling by $290 billion. The vote split mainly down party lines, with Democrats voting to raise the limit and Republicans voting against doing so.

The bill permits the Treasury Department to issue enough bonds to fund the government's operations and programs until mid-February. The Senate will vote again on the issue Jan. 20.

Obama must sign the measure into law to prevent a market-rattling, first-ever default on U.S. obligations. The government piled up a record $1.4 trillion deficit in 2009 to counter a meltdown in financial markets and help bring the nation out of its worst recession in seven decades.

The early-morning vote followed the Senate's passage of a landmark bill to overhaul America's health care system. They were the Senate's last votes of the year.

Democrats had originally planned to pass an unprecedented increase of almost $2 trillion to avoid another vote before next year's midterm elections.

But that plan fell apart amid opposition from about a dozen Senate Democratic moderates, who refuse to support a debt limit increase unless it is accompanied by legislation to establish a new bipartisan task force to come up with a plan to curb the deficit. That idea is opposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders.

Pelosi, meanwhile, is supporting demands of moderate House Democrats, who are demanding a "pay-as-you-go" budget law aimed at ensuring that new tax cuts or new spending programs don't increase deficits in exchange for their votes for the next debt increase.

The Senate is generally opposed to the idea, even though it was the law of the land for more than a decade.

Battles over those issues and others, such as a vote on a Republican proposal to end the Wall Street bailout program, are expected to resume during January's debate.

The current measure is needed as a result of the out-of-control budget deficit, which registered $1.4 trillion for the budget year that ended in September. The current debt ceiling is $12.1 trillion and is set to be reached by Dec. 31.