These votes were on a resolution setting a time limit for debate and prohibiting amendments to legislation that would that would raise the U.S. debt limit (the maximum amount the United States can be in debt) by $2.4 trillion (to $16.7 trillion) through 2012, cut more than $900 billion from social programs and military spending, and create a commission to propose an additional $1.5 trillion in budgetary savings (either from spending cuts or tax revenue increases). The first of these two votes was on a procedural motion known as the “previous question"--which effectively ends debate and brings the pending resolution to an immediate vote. The second vote was on passage of the resolution itself.
The underlying debt bill was the result of negotiations between President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). In previous years, Congress had voted to increase the debt limit with little controversy or fanfare, regardless of which party controlled the House, Senate, or the White House. This year—in 2011—House Republicans, who held a majority in that chamber, refused to raise the debt limit unless Democrats agreed to deep spending cuts. While most economists argued that defaulting on the nation’s debt could bring about an economic catastrophe, Republicans effectively held the debt limit hostage until Obama and Congressional Democrats agreed to make major concessions with respect to spending cuts.
The underlying debt bill would cut more than $900 billion from discretionary spending (spending other than funds for Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security). The bill did not, however, specify which programs would be cut. Rather, the measure simply limited discretionary spending overall. Thus, decisions regarding cuts to specific programs would be made by Congress and President Obama over the next few years. The bill did not cut funding from Pell Grants (which provide financial aid to low-income college students), as Republicans had previously insisted on. In order to preserve funding for Pell Grants, Democrats agreed to eliminate subsidized student loans for graduate students. (Under subsidized loans, students pay no interest on the borrowed amount during the period which they attended school. In other words, no interest accrues on the loan while the student is enrolled.) The measure preserved subsidized loans, however, for undergraduate students.
Finally, the bill created a bi-partisan commission to propose an additional $1.5 trillion in budgetary savings—either from further spending cuts, tax revenue increases, or a combination. If the commission cannot agree on a proposal--or if Congress rejects the proposal--across-the-board spending cuts (to domestic programs as well as military spending) totaling $1.2 trillion would automatically be enacted.
Rep. David Dreier (R-CA) urged support for the resolution and the underlying debt bill: “…After months and months of debate, we have arrived at the ultimate goal to which we are all committed: a bipartisan agreement to avert the debt ceiling crisis looming right before us. Even more importantly, we have crafted a plan that addresses the real underlying challenge of our ballooning national debt. The bipartisan agreement before us today is an historic achievement….this is the 76th time that we have raised the debt ceiling since 1962. Seventy-five times it has been raised. This is the 76th time. Yet…it is the very first time that we have done so while making corresponding cuts in spending…To most of us, this is just good common sense. It's the only responsible thing to do. Yet 75 times before, no connection was made between the debt ceiling and efforts to tackle our debt. With today's underlying legislation, we are fundamentally changing the way business is done here in Washington. We are setting a new precedent for fiscal discipline and accountability. This is a tremendous achievement that will have a profound and lasting impact on our budget and our economy in both the short, medium and long term.”
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) opposed the resolution and the underlying bill: “…I'm extremely disappointed with the solution that is being proposed today. It's important that we raise the debt ceiling; in fact, it is the duty of every member of Congress to ensure we pay our bills. Unfortunately, we have reached this point because some on the other side see paying our bills as optional and have asked a king's ransom for doing so. In the process, the majority has shown the world that our democracy is currently dysfunctional. Even if we avoid default, the process that got us to this point has already shown the world that the greatest nation on Earth can barely keep the lights on…. Furthermore, today's agreement does nothing to create jobs for the 25 million Americans who failed to find full-time jobs last month. On Friday, we will receive a jobs report that will provide even more evidence that while Congress has shrugged aside the urgent need to create jobs, millions of Americans continue to suffer. This bill does nothing to serve them. The [Republican] majority has steadfastly refused to consider a balanced approach to reducing our deficit, rejecting attempts to close tax loopholes for the rich and extend unemployment benefits for those unable to find work. Instead, they have decided to only consider the draconian cuts that threaten to reverse whatever fragile economic recovery is underway.”
The House agreed to the previous question motion by a vote of 242-184. All 238 Republicans present and 4 Democrats voted “yea.” 184 Democrats voted “nay.” As a result, the House proceeded to a final vote on a resolution setting a time limit for debate and prohibiting amendments to the debt limit bill. The House then passed the resolution by a vote of 249-178. All 239 Republicans present and 10 Democrats voted “yea.” 178 Democrats voted “nay.” As a result, the House proceed to formal floor debate on legislation that would raise the U.S. debt limit by $2.4 trillion (to $16.7 trillion) through 2012, cut more than $900 billion from social programs and military spending, and create a commission to propose an additional $1.5 trillion in budgetary savings.