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Reid, McConnell Set Vote on Short-Term Debt Bill; Portman Amendment Tabled

Senate Republicans are seeking to send messages on the debt through amendment votes Thursday on the House-passed bill that would suspend the debt limit through May 18. But their first attempt failed when the amendment was tabled.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Wednesday hashed out the details of their first real amendment agreement of the new Congress. And the Senate began work Thursday on the bill (HR 325) that would raise the debt ceiling while also imposing “no budget, no pay” rules, making the payout of congressional salaries contingent upon approval of a budget resolution in each chamber.

Chief among the Republican provisions are two amendments from Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. One would attempt to permanently end government shutdown standoffs, and another would codify the requirement that Congress find cuts commensurate with the amount spent to extend the debt limit. The Senate tabled, 54-44, that latter amendment before breaking for party luncheons. Work on the bill will resume after those conclude.

The measure that passed the House this month would suspend enforcement of the federal borrowing limit until May 18 and then raise the debt limit the following day to the debt accumulated to that point.

The amendment that would prevent government shutdowns was introduced originally by Portman and Democrat Jon Tester of Montana earlier this month. It would extend current law appropriations levels for 120 days after the original budget deadline before gradually decreasing those levels as an incentive for lawmakers to act on another piece of legislation.

Democrats generally have criticized such proposals in the Senate and the House as thinly veiled attempts to perpetuate continuous spending cuts in the budget.

The defeated Portman amendment would have made permanent the so-called “Boehner rule,” named for House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. The rule says Congress cannot agree to raise the debt ceiling unless cuts in spending by an equal amount are made over the next 10 years.

House Republicans abandoned, at least temporarily, the cause they took up in the summer of 2011 by approving the temporary debt limit extension last week. The bill that the House approved, which needed both Democratic and Republican votes to pass, did not include cuts in exchange for the extension, just the language that House members and senators not get paid if their respective chambers do not approve a budget resolution.

Given that Democrats call the House approval of the short-term debt limit a GOP retreat, Senate Republicans look to be taking up the mantle of conservatism in Congress. Multiple Republican sources indicated that the Senate GOP felt more leeway to be the more conservative voice in the current argument, as Republicans in the chamber are in the minority and therefore less burdened by having to find majority support for whatever ultimately passes Congress.

The other Republican amendments expected to get votes Thursday are a provision offered by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., that would call on the Treasury Department to prioritize different payments in case of Congress’ failure to extend the debt limit, as well as a relatively unrelated amendment from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would prohibit the sale of F-16 planes and tanks to Egypt.

James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, ranking Republican on Armed Services, offered an amendment to give the Pentagon authority to reprogram, or move, funds from one budget account to another in response to the automatic spending cuts under the sequester, but that amendment was not included in the agreement on votes.

Inhofe pitched his idea at a lunch with GOP senators Wednesday. “We’d like to do everything we can to keep the sequester from happening. We want to have some alternatives in place, just in case,” Inhofe said.

Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland said Democrats were unlikely to support GOP amendments to the debt limit extension, including proposals related to Pentagon spending cuts.

The House passed the debt limit measure on a 285-144 vote on Jan. 23 after Republican leaders dropped their insistence that any debt limit increase be accompanied by an equivalent amount of spending cuts. Most of the “no” votes were cast by Democrats.

While leaders of both parties agree on the need for a debt limit increase, they have sharply disagreed on the framework for talks aimed at reducing the budget deficit and the growth of the national debt. Democrats want a blend of spending cuts and new revenue to deal with the deficit and to replace automatic fiscal 2013 spending cuts mandated by the 2011 debt deal (PL 112-25) that are scheduled to begin March 1. Republicans have called for a focus on spending cuts.

“We can take on this challenge together if both sides are ready to do the necessary work to reform spending. But we need to get started today — not next week, not in April,” McConnell said Wednesday.

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