WASHINGTON - The Senate voted yesterday to raise the ceiling on the government debt to $12.4 trillion, a massive increase over the current limit and a political problem that President Obama has promised to address next year.
The Senate's rare Christmas Eve vote, 60-39, follows House passage last week and raises the debt ceiling by $290 billion. The vote split mainly down party lines, with Democrats voting to raise the limit and Republicans voting against doing so.
All Philadelphia-area senators voted for passage. There was one party defection on each side, by senators whose seats will be on the ballot next year: Republican George Voinovich of Ohio and Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana. The lone senator not voting was Jim Bunning (R., Ky.).
"I would not support raising the debt ceiling because Congress has not adopted a credible process to restrain spending and eliminate red ink," Bayh said in a statement.
The bill lets the Treasury Department issue enough bonds to fund the government's operations and programs till mid-February. The Senate will vote again on the issue Jan. 20.
Obama must sign the measure into law to prevent a market-rattling, first-ever default on U.S. obligations. The government piled up a record $1.4 trillion deficit in 2009.
The early-morning vote followed the Senate's passage of the health-care overhaul bill. They were the Senate's last votes of the year.
Except for Voinovich, Republicans uniformly derided the debt bill, though they routinely supplied votes for eight previous increases totaling $5.4 trillion under President George W. Bush.
Voinovich, who is retiring, said he voted yes after Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) agreed to consider amendments when the Senate takes up the matter again next month.
Democrats planned originally to pass an unprecedented increase of almost $2 trillion to avoid another vote before the 2010 midterm elections.
But that plan fell apart amid opposition from about a dozen Senate Democratic moderates, who refuse to support a debt-limit increase unless it is accompanied by legislation to establish a new bipartisan task force to come up with a plan to curb the deficit. That idea is opposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and other Democratic leaders.