Congress will pass a two-month, $200-billion-plus increase in the government's ability to borrow as one of its final acts before closing shop for Christmas, the No. 2 Democrat in the House said Tuesday.
It's a change of plans for Democrats, who had hoped to enact a far larger increase of up to $1.9 trillion to avoid having to cast another unpopular vote to increase the debt limit before next year's midterm elections.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the two-month increase is all that can get through the notoriously slow-moving Senate before year's end. In another change of plans, the debt limit increase will be considered on its own merits and won't be added to a $626 billion measure funding the Pentagon's budget and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The government has never defaulted on its financial obligations. The Treasury Department has said that the borrowing limit must be increased before Dec. 31.
The current debt cap is $12.1 trillion and Democrats had discussed raising it to as high as $14 trillion. But that plan fell apart amid opposition from about a dozen Senate Democratic moderates, who say they will refuse to vote for 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.
The deficit task force idea is the brainchild of Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the most senior members of the Budget Committee. Basically their plan would create a commission of lawmakers and administration officials to come up with a mix spending cuts and tax increases that would be guaranteed votes in the House and Senate after next year's midterm elections.
The commission would be structured to ensure that some GOP input would be required for a plan to receive House and Senate votes.
But the proposal is opposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other top Democrats such as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, both of whom would see their power eclipsed by the task force.
Conrad has been in talks with Hoyer to produce a compromise, but it has become plain that can't be achieved in the few remaining days of the congressional year.
Another complicating factor is moderate "Blue Dog" 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. Otherwise, they won't vote for the larger debt increase. The Senate is opposed to the idea.
The most recent increase in the debt limit came when Congress approved President Barack Obama's February economic recovery bill.
Lawmakers and staff aides said the reason that the debt measure has to move as a stand-alone bill instead of being wrapped into defense measure _ which would have provided a measure of political cover _ was because Sen. Russ Feingold refused to support the underlying Defense bill, which funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and contains thousands of parochial projects sought by members.
All 60 members of the Democratic caucus are needed to break a GOP filibuster and without Feingold's support, Democrats were forced to drop the debt limit provision to win over at least one Senate Republican. Thad Cochran of Mississippi is the top prospect.
A Feingold spokesman said the anti-war senator has consistently opposed war funding and will again do so in this case.