The Senate voted 52 to 44 yesterday to let the government borrow an additional $800 billion to head off a fiscal crisis that could occur when the $7.4 trillion national debt ceiling is reached in the next few days.
Democrats used the occasion to criticize GOP fiscal policies, including tax cuts, for causing a flood of red ink that drove the federal budget deficit to more than $400 billion in fiscal 2004. But Republicans warned that failure to raise the limit would prevent the government from sending out Social Security checks and providing necessary services.
It was nearly a party-line vote, with just one Republican, Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), voting against the proposal while only two Democrats, Sens. John Breaux (La.) and Zell Miller (Ga.), voted in favor. The House is set to take up the bill today.
When President Bush took office, the public debt was at $5.9 trillion and was declining because of the first federal budget surpluses in decades. Yesterday's increase was the third in as many years and will raise the government's borrowing authority to a record $8.2 trillion.
The defeated Democratic presidential candidate, John F. Kerry (Mass.), used the Senate floor to reprise campaign attacks on the Bush administration's deficit spending.
"Here we are again, back again, with a new [fiscal] hole, deeper and with graver consequences than at any time in American history. . . . It's the worst fiscal turnaround in our nation's history," he said.
But as Democrats bemoaned the red ink on the floor, senators from both parties were fighting behind the scenes to head off cuts in favorite programs and home-state projects in a huge spending package funding foreign aid and most federal agencies in 2005.
GOP leaders expressed hope that the measure, rolling together eight or nine annual spending bills, could be completed by the weekend. But it was clear yesterday that hurdles remain. The White House budget office, in a letter to Congress, said the administration is opposed to a proposed 3.5 percent pay increase for civilian federal employees and warned that it could force employment cuts to bring the overall federal payroll into line with projections.
The letter said the "arbitrary across-the-board increase" exceeded the 2.5 percent increase set to take effect Jan. 1 and would add $2.2 billion to the federal payroll.
The White House letter, however, pressed Congress to provide more adequate funding for several administration priorities, such as the Millennium Challenge foreign aid program.
Decisions on dozens of matters had not been finalized, leaving uncertainty about provisions regulating the use of pesticides, safety requirements for Mexican trucks, drug reimportation, food labeling and possible new fees on small business loans.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) expressed concern that Republican leaders were secretly adding "appendages" -- riders and provisions benefiting special interest groups.
The budgets of the National Science Foundation and the clean-water program of the Environmental Protection Agency will be cut, said Byrd, who called the bill "shortsighted."
There was strong pressure from the White House and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) to beef up the budget of NASA to finance a return to manned spaceflight and a mission to the Hubble space telescope.