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Washington - Forget about raising the federal debt limit. House Republicans are proposing to ignore it altogether - at least until May 18.
The House plans to vote today on a measure that would leave the $16.4 trillion borrowing limit intact but suspend it from the time the bill passes until mid-May. The declaration that the debt ceiling "shall not apply" means that the government could continue borrowing to cover its obligations to creditors until May 18.
This approach - novel in modern times - would let Republicans avoid a potentially disastrous fight over the debt limit without actually voting to let the Treasury borrow more money.
The House Ways and Means Committee unveiled the measure Monday; it was scheduled for a hearing in the Rules Committee on Tuesday and to hit the House floor today. In addition to postponing a partisan fight over the debt limit, the measure seeks to force Senate Democrats to negotiate over a formal budget resolution by mandating that lawmakers' paychecks be held in escrow starting April 15 unless Congress adopts a comprehensive blueprint for spending and tax policy.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that the White House welcomes the House Republicans' decision on the debt limit and that President Barack Obama "wouldn't stand in the way" if the bill passes the House. "Clearly, we support extension of the debt ceiling without drama or delay. That has been his position forever - as president and since we've had these rather novel debates about whether or not we should engage in games of chicken over the full faith and credit of the United States."
Later in the day the White House released a statement saying that it "would not oppose a short-term solution to the debt limit and looks forward to continuing to work with both the House and the Senate to increase certainty and stability for the economy."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., praised the measure as "a clean debt ceiling bill" and said that "I'm glad we're not facing crisis here in the matter of a few days." He said he would meet with Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., to discuss the bill's no-budget, no-pay provision.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., however, blasted the Republican measure as a diversion tactic on Tuesday.
Doubts about passage of the House measure were allayed Tuesday when a small but influential clutch of conservative lawmakers signaled that they would support the bill, as long as top leaders keep a vow to vote soon on a 2014 budget plan that would balance the budget within the next decade.
Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., said Tuesday that he and others would hold the leaders to their promise: "In 90 days, this is going to be the ultimate test of the relevancy of those we entrust with those leadership positions. And I believe there'd be hell to pay if they squander this."
Schweikert and five other conservatives attending a Tuesday lunch meeting with reporters sounded lukewarm about the debt ceiling proposal, and some said they would prefer to see the issue taken up immediately.
"I can't get to yes on this," said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. "I'm going to vote on principle. And I understand the principle of the next three months, but I think that every vote you take should be on principle."
But Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said he had no concern with delaying debate on the borrowing limit for the next few months because Republican leaders "actually have an agenda."
"The agenda is to get to balance in 10 years, to have a balanced budget," Labrador said, "not just to pass a budget that balances in 10 years, but to actually achieve balance in 10 years."
The national debt hit the $16.4 trillion limit on New Year's Eve, according to the Treasury Department, but outgoing Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said he could juggle the books and keep paying the nation's bills through the end of February. By suspending the debt limit, the House measure would permit the Treasury to continue borrowing, averting a potential crisis in world financial markets. But the Treasury would only be allowed to take on enough new debt to meet the nation's immediate needs; the measure prohibits administration officials from stocking up on extra cash while the debt limit is suspended.
The limit would kick in once again on May 19, when House leaders presume Congress will have agreed on a long-term strategy to rein in budget deficits driven to record levels by the recent recession. While the measure removes the threat of immediate crisis from a default, Congress faces other deadlines to force action on the budget. In addition to the halt in congressional paychecks, lawmakers face the imposition of sharp automatic spending cuts on March 1 and a potential government shutdown on March 27.