Senate to Vote This Week on Debt Limit Increase

Posted January 26, 2010 at 8:39pm

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced Tuesday that the Senate would cast a final vote on an increase in the debt limit by the end of the week, even as a handful of Democrats remained uncommitted on the controversial $1.9 trillion measure.

“I’m still hopeful we can get an agreement on a package,— Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said Tuesday night.

Conrad reiterated that he would “not vote for any long-term extension of the debt absent a credible commission being put in place.—

Earlier Tuesday, the Senate defeated an amendment by Conrad and ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) that would create a Congressionally appointed deficit commission, and Conrad continues to negotiate with the White House on an alternative approach that could serve as a carrot for moderates to vote in favor of the debt limit increase.

Reid will likely have to court a handful of Republicans to vote in favor of the debt limit increase, which would allow the government to spend beyond its current statutory ceiling. Gregg has not indicated how he will vote on the legislation, which would boost the limit to $14.294 trillion, and other targeted Republicans such as Sen. George Voinovich (Ohio) have also stayed mum.

Reid dodged a procedural bullet Tuesday on the debt limit bill, after Democrats, for the second time in as many months, blocked Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) from using procedural maneuvers to stall debate, thanks to controversial rulings by the chamber’s Parliamentarian, Alan Frumin.

Frumin, appointed by both parties to his post in 2001, ruled Tuesday that Coburn could not use an obscure procedural tactic known as the “clay pigeon— to divide his pending amendment to the debt limit increase into 17 separate parts — a move that would have essentially turned over control of the debate to Coburn for days.

Frumin argued that his decision was based on precedent that bars lawmakers from using the maneuver on amendments that are part of a unanimous consent agreement limiting the overall number of amendments to a bill. Frumin told Coburn that he had informed both sides of the aisle of that precedent several years ago.

But according to GOP staff, that precedent does not appear to exist in writing, and during a conversation on the floor, Coburn repeatedly pressed the Parliamentarian to provide the basis for his ruling.

“You can’t do that. You can’t do that! Two times in a row you’ve set precedent,— a clearly angry Coburn said.

In December, Frumin came under criticism from Senate Republicans for a ruling that blocked the GOP from forcing the reading of a 767-page amendment to the health care reform bill. That amendment was authored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

After Tuesday’s ruling, Coburn, Reid and Frumin entered into talks, and Reid ultimately agreed to split the bulk of Coburn’s amendment into four separate parts calling for a variety of budget cuts. The Senate defeated three of the four divisions by wide margins, but it did agree to one provision that would require the Government Accountability Office to annually identify redundant federal programs and agencies and provide Congress with recommendations for consolidating or eliminating them.

John Hart, Coburn’s spokesman, quipped that the agreement demonstrated a “willingness— on the part of Reid to reverse Frumin’s ruling.

“Dr. Coburn appreciated the Majority Leader’s willingness to reverse the Parliamentarian’s inappropriate ruling and allow a division of amendments. Instead of raising the debt limit, Congress can make a simple choice: Spend less money. If Congress can’t make hard budget choices, we don’t need a new commission, we need a new Congress,— Hart said.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley, however, rejected any notion — serious or otherwise — that the agreement represented a reversal. “We got an agreement — he didn’t do this unilaterally,— Manley said.