Senate approves debt ceiling extension

Friday, February 1, 2013 - 12:00am

The Democratic-controlled Senate passed legislation on Thursday extending the federal government's ability to borrow new money through mid-May, delaying a partisan standoff that some analysts warn could derail a fragile economic recovery.

The bill, which passed in a 64-34 vote, cleared the Republican-run House of Representatives last week. It now advances to President Obama's desk to be signed into law.

While the measure suspends Washington's $16.4 trillion debt ceiling through May 19, some budget analysts estimate it will give the U.S. Treasury the ability to meet all federal spending obligations through at least the end of July.

In exchange for temporarily suspending the debt ceiling, the bill requires lawmakers in both chambers of Congress to pass a budget by mid-April or have their pay withheld.

The requirement was added at the insistence of congressional Republicans, who wanted to highlight the failure of Senate Democrats to pass a budget resolution since 2009. Democrats note that such resolutions are not binding, and insist they would have been superseded by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which established budgetary restrictions for the last two fiscal years.

Top Capitol Hill Democrats have been divided over the bill. Some railed against the pay withholding provision -- calling it a political gimmick -- while others supported the measure as a whole because it removes an immediate threat of default and at least temporarily divorces the debt ceiling from GOP spending cut demands.

For their part, top Republicans have essentially conceded that a fight over raising the debt ceiling is not the best political avenue for achieving their twin deficit and spending reduction goals. Most political analysts believe that a 2011 debt ceiling fight, which led to the passage of the Budget Control Act, did not play to the GOP's political advantage.

That partisan fight led to a downgrade in the gold-plated U.S. credit rating and was thought to have slowed the fragile economic recovery.

Beyond the debt ceiling, the House and Senate will be forced to grapple shortly with two other polarizing budget-related deadlines.

If Congress fails to act by March 1, a pending sequester will trigger roughly $1 trillion in new defense and non-defense cuts over the next decade -- cuts generally disliked on both sides of the aisle.

In addition, federal funding for the current fiscal year is currently set to expire on March 27, forcing a government shutdown unless Congress can agree on at least a new temporary spending package.

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