With Democrats forcing squeamish Republicans to lead the way, the House voted yesterday to raise the nation's debt ceiling to $985 billion, handing President Reagan an easy victory on his first legislative request.
Approval of the $50 billion increase came by 305 to 104, as majorities of both parties voted for the measure.
In the Senate, however, both Democrats and dissident Republicans threatened to load up the bill with amendments ranging from a ban on all trade with the Soviet Union so long as the grain embargo continues to reinstatement of crude oil price controls. Democrats called for an increase of less than $50 billion; some Republicans demanded a prior vote putting the Senate on record as favoring restoration of presidential powers to impound congressional appropriations.
In the House, the Republican vote of 150 to 36 marked the first time since 1973 that a majority of GOP members have voted to lift the debt ceiling. On 22 debt ceiling increases since, requested by both Republican and Democratic presidents, Democrats have reluctantly carried the political burden of this unpopular responsibility.
Many Democrats have consequently been labeled big spenders by the GOP, and their resentment was obvious yesterday. Democrats withheld their votes until a wide majority of Republicans had registered ayes on the electronic scoreboard.
"I've faced this issue in every one of my campaigns," said Peter Peyser (D-N.Y.), who joined the majority of Democrats who supported the bill 155 to 68. James Shannon (D-Mass.) also voted for the increase but added that it was satisfying to see that the Republicans, "expert at throwing stones, are living in glass houses."
The debt ceiling bill, while purely a housekeeping measure allowing the government in increase borrowing according to its appropriated expenditures, has become a political issue, used by conservative rating groups as a measure of ideological purity.
Republicans plainly were holding their noses yesterday ase they voted for it. "A distasteful necessity," Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) called it. Rep. Delbert Latta (R-Ohio) told fellow members, "I have a confession to make. I'm going to vote for this. I hope the ceiling doesn't fall."
Marjorie Holt (R-Md.) said she had never voted for a debt ceiling increase and would this time only because, under Reagan, "I see some glimmers that we may bring spending under control." Other area representatives, Michael Barnes (D.Md.) and Virginia Republicans Stanford Parris and Frank Wolf, also voted for the bill.
Democrats were apparently unaffected by the surfacing earlier in the day of a letter signed by Reagan, and drafted by Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.), calling on Republicans to give money to defeat House Democrats, even as the Republicans were seeking the Democrats' help on the debt. House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) called it a "despicable" act. A White House spokesman apologized for the timing of the Jan. 21 mass mailing and said it had been intended to go out before the inauguration.
Although Regan was pushing for a simple bill unencumbered by extraneous amendments, some senators from both parties couldn't resist the opportunity to propose riders, and a large group of Republicans served notice they will try to use the debt vote as a springboard for budget-control action.
Senate Democrats, still smarting from GOP campaign attacks on previous debt votes, proposed that the ceiling be raised by $23 billion, rather than the $50 billion advocated by Reagan. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Dole (R-Kan.) complained that the Democratic proposal would cause the government to run out of borrowing authority by the end of February, rather than in September as contemplated by the GOP.
Meanwhile, a group of Republicans led by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah sought support for a seven-point "sense of the Senate" resolution that calls for, among other things, restoration of presidential impoundment powers, binding budget ceilings for Congress, tighter controls over borrowing and a chance to vote on a constitutional admendment to require balanced budgets.
Hatch said he talked with Reagan about the package by telephone Wednesday night and the president "didn't comment" except to indicate that he didn't want it tacked onto the debt ceiling measure. But Hatch said that Budget Director David Stockman is "not unhappy" with the overall effort.
Claiming that as many as 30 senators support the budget-control resolution, Hatch said many of them wanted to include it as part of the debt ceiling measure but were dissuaded by the administration. They settled instead, he said, on pushing for a vote on the budget resolution before the vote on the debt bill.
However, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) said he may try to tack the budget proposal onto the debt bill if the Democrats thwart the group's plans.
The amendment dealing with U.S.-Soviet trade was proposed by Sen. Roger Jepsen (R-Iowa). Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) has said he will propose an amendment to reinstate the crude oil price controls that Reagan recently removed.