WASHINGTON — Avoiding an economic showdown with President Barack Obama, the House on Wednesday passed legislation to eliminate the nation’s statutory borrowing limit until May, without including the dollar-for-dollar spending cuts that Republicans once insisted would have to be part of any debt limit bill.
The 285-144 vote staved off an impasse that could have put the full faith and credit of the U.S. government into doubt and potentially set off an economic disaster. Instead, the next Republican showdown with the president will come in March, when the subject will be across-the-board spending cuts first and a possible government shutdown by the end of the month.
“We know with certainty that a debt crisis is coming to America. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when," Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republicans’ vice-presidential nominee last year and current Budget Committee chairman, said as he vowed to press ahead with deep spending cuts.
To give House Republicans a rationale for giving in on the debt ceiling after dropping demands for offsetting cuts, the House legislation included a provision that would withhold the pay of lawmakers in a chamber of Congress that fails to pass a budget blueprint by April 15. That allowed House Republicans to turn a spotlight on Senate Democrats, who have not passed a detailed budget blueprint since 2009.
“It took one week in which their paychecks were on the line, and now the Senate is going to step up and do the right thing," Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, said after the vote.
Senate Democratic leaders shrugged off the dictate as an insignificant gimmick and claimed victory.
“The president stared down the Republicans. They blinked," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, thanked House Speaker John Boehner for reversing course and said he would take up and pass the House bill without changes as soon as next week, possibly by unanimous consent. He said he would then move quickly on a budget plan for the first time since 2009. The Democrats aim to highlight their priorities versus the proposal Ryan plans to move through his committee.
“Democrats are eager to contrast our pro-growth, pro-middle-class budget priorities with the House Republicans’ Ryan budget that would end Medicare as we know it, gut investments in jobs and programs middle-class families depend on, and cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Senate Budget Committee chairwoman.
House Republicans appeared eager for that fight. For two years, the House has passed detailed but nonbinding budget plans that would cut domestic programs to levels not seen since World War II, enact changes to Medicare that would offer older people fixed subsidies to buy private health insurance and mandate a much-simplified tax code. Democrats have criticized those plans but have declined to produce an alternative and instead have demanded what they called a “balanced approach" to deficit reduction.
Now, Republicans said, the debate will be over numbers.
“We have a budget that’s described as draconian, that decimates this program or that. They have a phrase, ‘balanced approach,’ " said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. “I’m tired of debating against a phrase."
House Republicans say punting the debt ceiling to May 18 is not so much a retreat as a “resequencing" of the coming budget showdowns. House Republicans now take for granted that the first deadline, March 1, will come and go and that $110 billion in across-the-board spending cuts to military and domestic programs — known as a sequester — will go into force.
“The sequester is going to go into effect on March 1 unless there are cuts and reforms that get us on a plan to balance the budget over the next 10 years. It’s as simple as that," Boehner said.
The next real showdown will come by March 27, when the stopgap measure financing the government expires. Republicans have made clear that they are willing to let the government shut down at that time to force deep spending cuts or changes to Medicare and Social Security that would bring down deficits in the long run.