The Senate voted 98 to 0 yesterday to approve a $417 billion Pentagon spending bill for 2005 after jettisoning a controversial Republican plan to attach an amendment raising the nation's debt limit.
Senate Democrats charged that the debt ceiling plan, which was devised by Republican House leaders, was a ruse to avoid a separate vote that would call attention to soaring budget deficits under GOP rule just months before the election.
The overall bill -- the largest of its kind in history -- provides a 3.5 percent military pay raise, increases housing allowances for military families, gives the Bush administration the $10.2 billion it sought for missile defense, and includes $95 million in emergency famine and refuge relief for Sudan. It also funds the purchase of 24 F/A-22 fighter planes for the Air Force, two more than authorized in a separate bill passed by the Senate on Wednesday.
But early yesterday it appeared the debt ceiling issue could delay debate on the huge measure, after Senate Republicans indicated they might support a provision already in the House version of the bill that paves the way for raising the legal borrowing limit.
According to Treasury Department spokesman Rob Nichols, the federal government could reach the limit of $7.4 trillion by late summer or early fall.
Senate Democrats made clear, however, they would not let Republicans finesse the problem with a provision buried in a popular defense spending bill, and they hinted they would slow down Senate debate on the defense measure unless the GOP abandoned the idea.
"This is a matter that should be brought before the American people," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). "Sneaking the debt limit onto an appropriations bill is not going to get by."
Faced with that situation, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) pledged to Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) that the debt ceiling provision would not be included in a final House-Senate compromise.
"We will not bring back a bill [from negotiations with the House] with that in it," Stevens said. House leaders were miffed at the turn of events. "There are two houses the last time I checked," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said.
John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said, "We're going to have to raise the debt limit to let Social Security checks go out."
The Bush administration has been pressing Congress to take action on the debt ceiling problem as soon as possible. But the administration can ill afford delays in enactment of the defense bill, which includes $25 billion to resupply forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The focus on the government's fiscal woes, evidenced by the debt ceiling controversy in the Senate, was mirrored in a partisan debate in the House yesterday over spending priorities and budget procedures.
By 230 to 184, the House defeated a proposal by Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) to revise this year's House-passed budget resolution, limiting tax cuts for those making more than $1 million a year to produce new revenue of $19 billion. The funds would be used for deficit reduction and domestic priorities.