GOP pushes debt limit increase through Congress

Friday, June 28, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Republicans barely muscled a $450 billion debt limit increase through Congress on Thursday, finally resolving an issue that had become an increasingly difficult political burden for the GOP.

After weeks of saying they lacked the votes to win, top Republicans spent the day lobbying rank-and-file lawmakers and abruptly brought the bill to the House floor. The measure was approved by a mostly party-line 215-214.

The Democratic-controlled Senate had approved the same increase in the borrowing ceiling on June 11 by a bipartisan 68-29 margin. President Bush is certain to sign it.

"The bipartisan House members who voted for this legislation put politics aside and did the right thing for the country," Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who had spent months urging congressional action, said after the vote. "They stood up for the soundness and strength of the American economy and preserved the full faith and credit of the United States government."

No one doubted that eventually, Congress would raise the current $5.95 trillion debt limit to avert an unprecedented federal default.

Democrats speak out

But for months, Democrats used the issue as the symbol of what they say are President Bush's failed fiscal policies, particularly the tax cut he pushed through Congress last year. The debt limit was last increased in 1997, before a string of four straight annual surpluses under President Clinton had allowed part of the debt to be paid down.

"Two Republicans, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush, they dug the hole," Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., said of the deficits that prevailed before then. "We dug us out of it and now you're back into it. ... Why don't you admit you made a mess?"

As House GOP leaders spent weeks hunting fruitlessly for votes, Democrats offered to supply them. But as a trade-off, they were demanding higher spending on the anti-terrorism bill and in next year's budget, plus overall budget talks that Republicans feared could have resulted in revisiting next year's tax cut.

Republicans decided that was too a high a price to pay.

GOP leaders said they nailed down the final votes they needed by telling their rank-and-file members that passing the debt limit increase would rob Democrats of leverage for the higher spending they were seeking.

"It was going to be this or have Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle extort $8 billion or so" on the anti-terror bill, said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.

The Bush administration first asked Congress for a $750 billion boost in the debt limit last December.

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