Washington Digest: Senate extends U.S. borrowing power


WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Senate voted last week to extend the government’s borrowing power through mid-May, delaying at least one partisan showdown over the nation’s debt and deficits.

Senators voted 64-34 to suspend the $16.4 trillion debt limit until May 19. The measure, already passed by the House, was sent to the president.

The move allows the government to continue borrowing to meet interest payments and avoid default on its debts. Republicans had threatened to withhold support as a way to force cuts in spending but most decided to hold off until Congress takes up a separate government funding bill later this spring.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said the delay until May gives Congress “a few month’s breathing room” to negotiate new strategy on debt and spending.

The newly passed bill contains a “no budget, no pay” provision that would place the salaries of senators and House members in escrow if the body in which they serve failed to pass a budget by April 15.

“No budget, no pay” was derided as a gimmick, but its supporters said it sends a message that Congress must get itself together to stem red ink.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., voted for the bill. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., did not vote.

Portman Amendment

Before passage, the Senate killed an amendment by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that sought to offset future increases in the debt limits with cuts in spending over the next 10 years.

“I think we can all agree that saddling our children and grandchildren with this enormous debt is not just bad economics, it is immoral,” he said.

Speaking against the amendment, Baucus said it was brought up in he past year or two but failed to win support.

“Dollar for dollar, this has been attempted in the past,” Baucus said. “This is an idea that was once tried, but it didn’t work.”

Portman’s amendment was tabled, 54-44. Cantwell voted against it. Murray did not vote.

Egypt arms sale upheld

The Senate killed an amendment by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to halt the sale of F-16 fighter jets and M1 Abrams tanks to Egypt, which is experiencing political unrest.

“I think it particularly unwise to send tanks and our most sophisticated fighter planes to Egypt at a time in which many are saying the country may be unraveling,” Paul said, adding he feared they may end up being used against Israel.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., argued calling off the sale would be “harmful to America’s national security interests.” He said it would hamper Egypt’s military, which is “one of the stabilizing forces” in the country.

The amendment was killed, 19-79. Cantwell voted against it. Murray did not vote.

Hurricane Sandy aid finalized

The Senate gave final approval to a $50.5 billion aid bill for victims of superstorm Sandy that hit the East Coast in October.

Senators voted 62-36 for the bill, after supporters said it took way too long for Congress to complete. Critics challenged the amount of spending in the bill.

Cantwell voted for the bill. Murray did not vote.

Senators defeated an amendment by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, that would have offset the disaster aid by lowering spending by .5 percent across the board this year and by similar amounts over the next eight years.

“If we are being asked to spend money, no matter how important the cause, to the tune of more than $50 billion in one fell swoop, I think we owe it to the good people of the United States of America … to consider how our actions today might forestall, might complicate, might impair our ability to fund those programs down the road,” Lee said.

Sen. Robert Menendez. D-N.J., said the amendment would means cuts in education, health care, health research, law enforcement, “ a whole host of things we care about in our lives every day, across-the-board cuts, indiscriminate, without anything about what the consequences are.”

Lee’s amendment was killed, 35-62. Cantwell voted against it. Murray did not vote.