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House Republican leadership scored a rout over Democrats and detractors in their own conference Wednesday by passing a short-term debt limit bill as Democratic opposition crumbled and Republicans provided a relatively unified vote on a major spending bill.
In effect, Republicans won by scaling back their expectations, deciding at their annual retreat in Williamsburg, Va., last week to abandon the insistence on dollar-for-dollar spending cuts for a debt limit increase and replace it with a demand that the Senate pass a budget.
But Wednesday’s feel-good debt ceiling increase does not forebode tranquility. Many conservatives joined Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio in part because of promises he made to hold firm in future battles, and the speaker will be hard pressed to keep the coalition intact through the pitfalls ahead.
The bill would suspend the debt limit through May 18, then automatically increase the current $16.4 trillion ceiling to accommodate additional debt accumulated before that date.
The legislation also would tie congressional pay to passage of a budget plan by suspending salaries of members of the House or Senate if either chamber does not adopt a resolution by April 15. Lawmakers would be paid at the end of the 113th Congress should their pay be delayed.
Although he had promised not to negotiate over the debt limit, the scheme won tacit approval from President Barack Obama, who signaled he would sign the bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he will pass it through the Senate unchanged.
House passage puts heat on Senate Democrats to place their spending priorities into legislative text. Perhaps more important, it sets the field of play on which Congress will have to deal with automatic spending cuts, or the sequester, and the coming expiration of a continuing resolution to fund the government.
Those battles should be bruising, in part because in order to wrangle votes from his own conference, Boehner promised five influential conservatives he would push a budget that would balance in 10 years and keep spending levels at or below those set under the sequester’s cuts.
Boehner told reporters Wednesday that he has not yet spoken with Obama or Reid about how to deal with the sequester but established in no uncertain terms that the cuts are real.
“The sequester is going to go into effect on March 1 unless there are cuts and reforms that get us on a plan to balance the budget over the next 10 years. It’s as simple as that,” he said.