Moderate House Democrats may be able to vote Thursday for the statutory pay-as-you-go budget enforcement tool they have long sought without having to vote directly on an accompanying $1.9 trillion debt limit increase.
Under a plan devised by Democratic leaders and approved Wednesday by the Rules Committee, if the “self-executing” procedural rule for floor consideration of the debt limit bill (H J Res 45) is adopted, the debt limit increase would be considered passed without a separate vote on the measure. That is intended to temper the political sting of the debt issue for moderates.
The rule does, however, provide for a separate vote on the bill’s pay-as-you-go section. The bill would be cleared and sent to the president if the pay-as-you-go section is approved.
The maneuver would allow liberals to vote for the rule, thus increasing the debt limit, and then vote against the pay-as-you-go section that many of them oppose. Aides have said they have the votes needed for passage of the debt limit boost in any case, but the procedural setup could avoid some angst for those at the moderate and liberal edges of the caucus. “It’s a better vote for some people,” said Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.
Republicans, however, are sure to argue that a vote for the rule is a vote for more debt. David Dreier of California, the Rules Committee’s top Republican, called the Democrats’ maneuver unprecedented and “extremely troubling.”
“Clearly this is designed as a tool to shield accountability,” Dreier complained. “All one needs to do is vote in favor of the rule — not in favor of increasing the debt ceiling — and guess what? The debt ceiling’s automatically increased.”
Voting for a debt ceiling increase as large as $1.9 trillion would be politically difficult for members of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 54 fiscally conservative House Democrats, many of whom face tough re-election contests in the fall. But that group also champions the pay-as-you-go rule — which requires tax cuts and new mandatory spending to be offset with revenue increases or spending cuts elsewhere — as a way to enforce discipline on the budget.
Confident of success, Blue Dogs are already hailing Thursday’s action as a fulfillment of years of work on the issue. “This represents the biggest legislative achievement for the Blue Dog Coalition since it came into being,” said Earl Pomeroy, a North Dakota Democrat.
But the bill would exempt some items from pay-as-you-go, including the extension of middle-income tax cuts. The exemptions have drawn criticism from budget watchdog groups, but Democratic leaders argue that they are needed because Congress, particularly the Senate, has not shown the ability to offset the cost of such measures.
In April, the House adopted a $925 billion debt limit increase (H J Res 45) automatically — and without a roll call vote — when the fiscal 2010 budget resolution (S Con Res 13) was adopted. Last week, the Senate took up the House-passed bill and replaced it with the $1.9 trillion debt limit increase, an amount chosen because it is thought to be enough to ensure that another debt limit increase will not need to be considered before Election Day.
Senate Democrats voted to add the pay-as-you-go language to the debt limit increase as part of a deal among the leadership, Blue Dogs and Senate moderates. The Blue Dogs did not want to vote for a large debt limit increase without the budget enforcement language.
Blue Dogs have pointed to budget surpluses during the Clinton administration, when pay-as-you-go was part of federal law, as evidence of its effectiveness. The law lapsed in 2002.
Democrats established pay-as-you-go procedures as House and Senate rules when they took over Congress in 2007, but supporters argue that writing pay-as-you-go into law would give it more teeth.
Republicans point out that the requirement, sometimes known as PAYGO, has been waived several times, and they have called it “Swisscheese-Go,” as the parties jockey for the mantle of fiscal responsibility.
Some liberals oppose pay-as-you-go, arguing that it would require cuts in social safety net programs if new policies are enacted that would add to the deficit. “I won’t vote for something that could cut food stamps for kids,” said Rep. José E. Serrano, D-N.Y., who represents one of the poorest districts in the country.