Faced with the prospect of a government unable to pay its bills, the Senate voted on Wednesday to raise the federal debt limit by $800 billion.
Though an increase in the debt ceiling was never in doubt, Republican leaders in both houses of Congress postponed action on it last month, until after the elections, to deprive Democrats of a chance to accuse them of fiscal irresponsibility.
The bill, if approved by the House in a vote expected on Thursday, would authorize the third big increase in the federal borrowing since President Bush took office in 2001. Federal debt has ballooned by $1.4 trillion over the past four years, to $7.4 trillion, and the new ceiling would allow borrowing to reach $8.2 trillion.
With no end in sight to the huge annual budget deficits, which hit a record of $412 billion this year, lawmakers predicted on Wednesday that the new ceiling would probably have to be raised again in about a year.
The 52-to-44 vote was almost purely along party lines, with one Republican, Senator John Ensign of Nevada, voting against a higher ceiling.
Two Democrats, Senators John B. Breaux [who hopes to be named as Bush’s next Energy Secretary] of Louisiana and Zell Miller of Georgia, voted in favor of the measure.
“I don’t remember anyone during the elections making a promise to raise the federal debt to $8.1 trillion,” Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota, said. “What we’re doing here is just writing another blank check and saying to this administration, ‘Go ahead, continue to run record budget deficits.’ ”
“To pay our bills, America now goes cup in hand to nations like China, Korea, Taiwan and Caribbean banking centers,” [Sen. John] Kerry said. “Those issues didn’t go away on Nov. 3, no matter what the results.”