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US Debt Drama Engulfs Both Houses of Congress

Michael Bowman

July 28, 2011

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote Thursday on a Republican plan to trim government spending and raise the federal borrowing limit. The vote comes days before a deadline to avert a possible default on U.S. debt obligations that President Barack Obama says would trigger financial “Armageddon.” Regardless of how the House votes, the bill is considered dead-on-arrival in the upper chamber.

Republican Speaker John Boehner

At a time when political gridlock threatens to cast the United States into financial ruin, a morning prayer offered by Senate Chaplain Barry Black seemed particularly on-point:

“Lord, you have been our God from the beginning. Save us from ourselves,” Prayed Black.

But if political flexibility and bipartisanship are key to resolving the debt stand-off engulfing Washington, the chaplain’s words appeared to fall on deaf ears.

Even before the House cast a single vote on Republican Speaker John Boehner’s plan tying a two-stage debt ceiling increase to substantial spending cuts, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pronounced the bill a lost cause in the Democratically-controlled upper chamber.

“Republicans cannot get the short-term band-aid they will vote on in the House today. It will not get one Democratic vote in the Senate,” said Reid.

Late Wednesday, Senate Democrats sent a letter to Speaker Boehner informing him of their intention to defeat the House bill if it should come to the Senate.

Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says he is baffled by the Democratic position.

“It is inconceivable to me that they would block the only bill that could get through the House of Representatives and prevent a default right now. Inconceivable,” McConnell said.

Democrats are rallying behind an alternative proposal by Senator Reid. His plan also calls for significant spending cuts, but would authorize a single increase in federal borrowing big enough to assure government solvency through next year’s national elections. The Boehner plan would force Washington to return to debt negotiations in another six months.

Reid says his plan would spare the nation from another painful political fight over government finances months from now. He also argues that his plan bends to Republican demands for deep spending cuts without tax increases, and therefore constitutes a real compromise deserving of Republican support.

Reid had a message for Republican lawmakers.

“Legislation is the art of compromise, and they need to learn that. There are things that either side cannot get. Accept that, and move on,” Reid said.

Republicans counter that Reid’s proposal is driven more by the political calendar than an honest desire to put America’s fiscal house in order. Just as the Boehner plan is considered dead-on-arrival in the Senate, so too is the Reid plan in the House of Representatives. Senator McConnell says it is Democrats who face a critical choice:

“Guaranteed default, or a bill that takes the specter of default off the table while giving us another opportunity to address the very deficits and debts that caused this crisis in the first place. Senate Democrats are playing with fire here,” said McConnell.

The White House has said President Obama would consider a stop-gap debt ceiling increase to give Congress additional time to act, but only if a bipartisan deal has been hammered out by August 2. Beyond that date, the U.S. government will have exhausted its ability to borrow money. Given a $1.5 trillion federal budget deficit, the government will not have enough funds to cover spending commitments while also servicing a $14.3 trillion national debt.

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