WASHINGTON – After days of theatrics, the House of Representatives on Friday evening finally approved a conservative Republican plan linking an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling to the highly unlikely passage of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
The measure passed on a 218-210 vote.
But the GOP plan was quickly killed in the Democratic-run Senate by a 59-41 vote. The Senate is expected to take up a Democratic-authored plan this weekend.
Passage of the House plan, though, was an attempt by Republicans to show where they stood, and it set the stage for three final days of intense, last-ditch negotiations, as President Barack Obama again implored Congress to find a path “out of this mess.”
If the debt limit is not raised by Tuesday, the government could default on its debt, which could trigger panic in financial markets and send the nation back into recession.
While the two parties were close to agreeing on most final terms of a deficit-reduction plan, they remained split over how to increase the debt limit. Democrats want one vote on a ceiling that would increase the Treasury’s borrowing authority sufficient to last through 2012.
The White House is open to a two-day extension of the debt ceiling if needed to allow time for a real deal to work its way through Congress.
That could happen by passing a bill giving the Treasury Department approval to borrow enough to keep financing government to Aug. 4, or by granting a dollar increase in the debt ceiling, according to Democrats familiar with debt talks. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden continue to talk to members of Congress from both parties.
The House Republican plan would provide for two votes raising the ceiling – one immediately that would increase Treasury borrowing authority by about $900 billion, enough to stretch into early 2012, and a second one after Congress approves the balanced budget amendment.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio defended this approach in a fiery speech to close the debate. “I stuck my neck out a mile,” he said, trying to get a bipartisan agreement.
Approval of the balanced budget amendment is highly unlikely, since it requires two-thirds approval by both houses of Congress. Democrats, who oppose the amendment as unwise because it would prevent the government from responding to economic crises, control 193 of the House’s 435 seats and 53 of 100 Senate seats.
Friday was a day of fast-moving developments. Obama said Friday morning in televised remarks from the White House that constituents should keep the pressure on Congress.
“Keep it up,” Obama said in televised remarks from the White House. “Let your members of Congress know. ... Keep the pressure on Washington and we can get past this.”
Later in the day, his 2012 campaign took to Twitter to urge followers to tweet members of Congress.
“Live in MN? Have a Republican representative? Tweet them and ask them to support a bipartisan compromise to deficit reduction,” @BarackObama tweeted.
In the Senate, Democrats said they would begin considering their own $2.2 trillion deficit reduction plan, one unlikely to win much if any Republican support. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada threatened to hold a vote to end extended debate on the plan shortly after midnight Sunday; Senate rules prohibit him forcing one sooner.
It’s questionable whether his plan will survive in the Senate, since it takes 60 votes to cut off extended debate and move to a vote on passage – meaning Democrats must attract seven Republicans for Reid’s plan to pass.
Still, Reid said he’d move ahead.
“The deadline will not move,” he said of Tuesday’s deadline for raising the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.
“We have hours, I repeat, hours, to act,” said Reid, speaking on the Senate floor as he opened the Senate for business Friday. “That’s why, by the end of the day, I must take action on the Senate’s compromise legislation.”
Some hope existed that common ground could be found. Lawmakers noted that the Reid and Boehner plans had many similarities. Both would cut discretionary spending by about $750 billion over 10 years. Neither plan would raise new revenue. And both would set up 12-member legislative committees to find new ways to reduce future deficits.
“This is not a situation where the two parties are miles apart,” Obama said. “There are plenty of ways out of this mess. But we are almost out of time.”