CAPITOL HILL — The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a Republican bill to suspend the legal limit on government borrowing until mid-May. If the bill is passed by the Senate and signed by the president, which appears likely, it will delay a major showdown between Democratic President Barack Obama and Congress over budget and spending issues, and stave off the threat of the United States defaulting on its national debt.
In a surprise move just days after President Obama's second inauguration, House Republicans retreated from earlier demands for a dollar in spending cuts for every dollar they increase the legal limit on borrowing, and introduced a bill that would extend the debt limit until May 19. The bill passed by a vote of 288 to 185.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner said it is time that the White House and the Democratic-controlled Senate come up with a budget that addresses the soaring national debt.
"It is time for Congress to get serious about this, and this is first step in an effort to bring real fiscal responsibility to Washington. It is real simple: no budget, no pay," Boehner said.
House Republicans added a requirement to the temporary debt limit extension, specifying that both chambers of Congress must adopt a budget by April 15, as required by law, or have their congressional pay withheld until the start of the new Congress in 2015.
A number of Democrats called this move a political "gimmick," and some said it is unconstitutional. A number of Democrats complained that extending the debt ceiling by less than four months did little to provide much-needed certainty to the economy.
Democratic Congressman Sander Levin said this: "This Republican bill is not a change in policy, it’s a change in tactics. House Republicans continue to play with economic fire. They’re playing political games with the debt ceiling, and that undermines certainty."
Democratic Minority leader Nancy Pelosi called on Democrats to vote against it.
"Three months. Where is the certainty in three months? We should not even be having a debate. It should be no doubt that the full faith and credit of the United States will be honored, and that is what our Constitution says," Pelosi said.
On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said he plans to introduce a budget in the Senate soon anyway, and said a short-term debt ceiling extension is better than another immediate showdown with Republicans.
"But to spare the middle class another knock-down, drag-out fight, we are going to proceed work on this legislation and get it out of here as fast as we can," Reid said.
Reid said he plans to take up the bill quickly, and the White House also made clear that President Obama would not oppose the House bill. Without congressional action on the debt ceiling, the United States would not have been able to pay its bills some time around mid-February, which could have had a significant impact on the global economy.
Some Senate Democrats said House Republicans appear to be in "full retreat," just weeks after going to the brink on a series of measures known as the fiscal cliff, where both chambers of Congress passed a bill that raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans over the resistance of most House Republicans.
Analysts say this is the first time in a long time that the House acted on a controversial budget or spending measure well ahead of the deadline, but they also point out that there are likely to be more battles to come between Democrats and Republicans over severe, across-the-board spending cuts and a vote on funding the federal government - both set to happen in March.