House Republicans are scheduled to vote today to extend the nation's $16.4 trillion debt limit as the opening salvo in a renewed battle this year to pass a federal budget and reduce the debt.
The Republican bill would suspend the limit on the nation's borrowing authority to pay for its legal obligations through May 18. The debt limit pays for obligations that Washington has already agreed to; it does not authorize new spending. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said the nation will hit its borrowing limit by early March.
The bill would both buy time for both parties to engage in broader budget negotiations and assuage market fears of a potential U.S. default.
The White House was critical of the short-term approach but said Tuesday that President Obama would sign it if it reaches his desk. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was non-committal on whether he would take up the House bill. Reid met late Tuesday with Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., to discuss the Democrats' strategy.
Obama and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., will release their respective budgets after the president's Feb. 12 State of the Union Address. Senate Democrats, who have not passed a budget since 2009, intend to pass a budget this year, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told NBC on Sunday.
In an effort to pressure the Senate, House Republicans included in their legislation a provision to suspend lawmakers' salaries if their respective chamber does not pass a budget by April 15. Their salaries would be held in escrow until a budget is adopted, or until the 113th Congress ends in two years. The "no budget, no pay" language is popular among outside reform advocates, such as the non-partisan group No Labels. Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, backed the proposal, calling it an "appropriate sanction."
Congress also faces two upcoming budget deadlines when automatic spending cuts kick in March 1, and current government funding runs out March 27. The deadlines, combined with the annual budget process that takes place in the spring, provide yet another opportunity for a Congress to come to a longer-term budget agreement over the short-term solutions that have defined the previous two years of divided government.
The Senate's failure to pass a budget is a long-running point of contention for Republicans.
"We think it's incredible that the Senate for three years has ignored the law and has refused to pass a budget. It's just something that bothers us so much the fact that our government has gone without a budget for three years, on autopilot," Ryan said recently. "We think we need to have a big debate about a vision for the country, and at least how we would budget."
It is more likely the two chambers will pass respective budget blueprints than agree to a joint budget resolution, but even dueling budgets would be a small sign of progress in Washington's ongoing fiscal wars.
The policy divide between the two parties remains wide. For example, Schumer told NBC that the Democrats' budget would include instructions for overhauling the federal tax code to include more revenue.
"The tax issue is over," countered Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday, citing the New Year's agreement that made permanent the Bush-era tax rates for 99% of Americans while raising taxes for those making $400,000 a year as individuals or couples making $450,000 a year. "I would venture to say there's not a single Republican vote" for more revenue.
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