One Final Hurdle: Debt-Ceiling Bill Faces Senate Vote

Aug 2, 2011

It seems to be all over but the voting.

Hours before the deadline to avert a U.S. default, the Senate was expected to pass legislation Tuesday in time to send it to President Obama and end the self-inflicted debt-ceiling crisis that has shaken confidence in the nation's credit and its political leaders.

The compromise bill, which easily passed the House on Monday night, is virtually assured to clear the Senate by a bipartisan tally. The president has promised to sign it into law almost immediately.

While Washington may be feeling a sense of relief that the worst has been avoided, NPR's Ari Shapiro said there's "a real disappointment that this is really a lowest common denominator plan. Everything in it was on the table months ago."

The measure would provide an immediate $400 billion increase in the $14.3 trillion U.S. borrowing cap, with $500 billion more assured this fall. That $900 billion would be matched by cuts to agency budgets over the next 10 years.

What follows next is more complicated. The measure establishes a special bipartisan committee to draft legislation to find up to $1.5 trillion more in deficit cuts for a vote later this year. If this supercommittee cannot reach a consensus or Congress fails to act on the recommendations by Dec. 23, there would be automatic cuts across much of the budget, including Pentagon coffers.

"There are only so many ways to find $1.5 trillion to save and a lot of people think that's going to have to involve changes to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and to the tax code," Shapiro said. "But of course there are going to be obstacles. This committee is likely to include Republicans who have pledged never to raise taxes. It will likely include some Democrats who say they will not touch entitlement programs."

Polls showed that Congress and Obama have taken a sharp hit in U.S. public opinion because of the prolonged battle over lifting the debt ceiling, something that past Congresses have done as a matter of course.

The issues in the standoff will inform debates leading up to and beyond the 2012 presidential election, Shapiro said.

"For example, right around the corner, there's another standoff over next year's budget, which could result in the same threat of a government shutdown that we saw at the beginning of this year. And that debate is going to be over the same taxes, spending cuts, role of government ... all of the issues that we've heard hashed out over the last few months."

Questions also linger about the effect the grueling political free-for-all will have on the U.S. credit rating.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told ABC News in an interview that he didn't know whether the debt-limit fight would cause America's AAA credit rating to be downgraded. "It's not my judgment to make," he said. Geithner also said he fears world confidence in the U.S. was damaged by "this spectacle."

Monday's 269-161 House vote capped a long, difficult battle between tea party-powered House Republicans and Obama — with House Speaker John Boehner caught in the middle more than once.

Amid the high intrigue of the historic moment, the drama was heightened even further when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman wounded in a shooting rampage seven months ago, made a surprise visit to the House floor to cast her vote. Colleagues on both sides of the aisle rushed to her side to embrace her, saluting her courage and resiliency.

Much of the House-passed measure was negotiated on terms set by Boehner, which included a demand that any increase in the nation's borrowing cap be matched by spending cuts at least as large. But it also meets demands made by Obama, including debt increases large enough to keep the government funded into 2013 and curbs on growth of the Pentagon budget.

Even though Obama strongly supported the measure, half of the chamber's Democrats opposed it. Sixty-six conservative Republicans opposed the measure as well.

"I'm not happy with it," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said. "But I'm proud of some of the accomplishments in it. That's why I'm voting for it."

Vice President Joe Biden said the deal "has one overwhelming redeeming feature" — postponing the next debt limit battle until 2013 and leaving the current fight behind. "We have to get this out of the way to get to the issue of growing the economy," he said.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) said the Republicans got the better of the deal.

"Republicans intentionally created a crisis in order to get their way," Schakowsky said. "This is the wrong medicine for a sick economy. This bill could increase unemployment, slow economic growth and deepen already historic income inequality."

GOP leaders lobbied their members as well, but with Democratic leaders and Obama behind the legislation, there was far less pressure on them than last week, when they were forced to delay a vote and rewrite an earlier version of the measure to assuage tea party lawmakers.

"This measure is not perfect or the way we would have done it if we were in charge, but it will finally begin to change the way Washington spends taxpayer dollars," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said. "As is the case with any major change, these things will take time and this is the first significant move — of many to come — to turn Washington around."

In the Senate, support from Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky virtually guarantees the measure will receive the 60 votes required to pass on Tuesday. The vote is set for noon, plenty of time to ship the measure up Pennsylvania Avenue to Obama.

With reporting from NPR's Ari Shapiro, David Welna and Brian Naylor in Washington, D.C. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.