Retreating with a purpose, Republicans sped legislation through the House on Wednesday to avert the imminent threat of a government default but pointing the way to a springtime budget struggle with President Barack Obama over Medicare, farm subsidies and other benefit programs.
The current legislation, which cleared the House on a bipartisan vote of 288-144, would permit Treasury borrowing to exceed the limit of $16.4 trillion through May 18. As it passed, Speaker John Boehner pledged that Republicans would quickly draft a budget that would wipe out deficits in a decade, and he challenged Democrats to do the same.
The Democratic- controlled Senate is expected to approve the debt bill as early as Friday or perhaps next week. The White House welcomed the legislation rather than face the threat of a first-ever default at the dawn of the president’s second term in the White House, and spokesman Jay Carney pointedly noted a “fundamental change” in strategy by the GOP.
House Republicans cast the bill as a way to force the Senate to draft a budget for the first time in four years, noting that if either house fails to do so, its members’ pay would be withheld. They called the bill “no budget, no pay,” a slogan if not a statement of fact, since lawmakers would be entitled to collect their entire salaries at the end of the Congress with or without a budget in place.
With polls showing their public support eroding, the Republicans jettisoned, for now at least, an earlier insistence that they would allow no additional borrowing unless Obama and the Democrats agreed to dollar-for-dollar federal spending cuts in exchange.
The average American family “can’t buy everything they want every day; they have to make tough choices. It’s time to make Congress make the same choices,” said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., underscoring the new Republican rallying cry.
Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin lawmaker who will be responsible for drafting the budget for Republicans, said Congress has “a moral obligation” to prevent a debt crisis that he said will hit hardest at seniors and others who depend on government the most.
As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan will take the lead role in crafting a blueprint expected to rely heavily on savings from benefit programs. The budget he wrote last year before being chosen as the party’s vice presidential candidate was to take two decades to achieve balance.
Ryan’s 10-year-budget task will be eased in part by higher tax revenues resulting from the Jan. 1 expiration of a two-year payroll tax cut and in part from an anticipated $600 billion generated by raising rates on upper incomes. But given the sheer size of annual deficits in the $1 trillion range, it will be impossible to meet his goal without taking large savings from benefit programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, farm- and student-loan subsidies, the federal retirement program and more.
House Democrats made no attempt to defend the Senate’s failure to draft a budget over the past three years, instead saying a mere four-month extension in the debt limit would not give business and the financial markets the certainty that is necessary for the economy to grow more quickly.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, his party’s senior Budget Committee member, said the good news was, “Republicans have finally recognized the government must pay its bills. ... The bad news is they only want to do it for four months.”
Beyond the rhetoric lay a political calculation on the part of Boehner and other House Republicans that they could not afford to set up an immediate confrontation with Obama. At a closed-door retreat last week, the rank and file was presented with polling that showed their support eroding since the election into the mid-to-high 20s, and indicating that increasingly, the public believes they oppose Obama out of political motives rather than on policy grounds.
The same surveys show significant support for spending cuts, although backing wanes when it comes to reductions to individual programs that are popular.
Several officials said the leadership and Ryan had solidified rank-and-file Republicans behind a shift in strategy by emphasizing a commitment to a budget that would eliminate deficits in a decade, and the sentiment was expressed on the House floor.