WASHINGTON (AP) - Senate Democrats on Thursday stopped a Republican attempt to block President Barack Obama from using his authority to raise the government's borrowing cap by $1.2 trillion.
The GOP move failed on a 52-44 vote that split mostly along party lines. The vote caps an unusual process set up by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to let lawmakers, mostly Republicans, vote against debt increases but not actually block them. Blocking them would provoke a first-ever, market-rattling default on U.S. obligations.
"Look, we should be working together to lower the debt, not having votes to increase it," McConnell said Thursday. "No more blank checks."
But Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana said default was unthinkable and additional borrowing is needed to pay for obligations already incurred by lawmakers.
"If today's vote succeeds and causes a default, the federal government would not have funds to pay troop salaries, Social Security benefits or Medicare bills," Baucus said. "These programs would be in danger, and that would hurt the families and seniors that rely on them."
Either way, Obama's presidential veto power guarantees the increase would have gone through as intended, anyway.
The House had passed the measure last week.
Last year's debt agreement permits a total debt limit increase of $2.1 trillion in exchange for an equivalent amount in spending cuts, which would be spread out over the coming decade. The first $900 billion comes from caps on the day-to-day operations of federal agencies.
The increases were approved after a long deadlock between Democrats controlling the White House and Senate and tea party-backed Republicans dominating the House. As part of the debt pact, new "caps" on agency budgets were imposed over the coming decade to save $900 billion, and a so-called supercommittee was established with instructions to generate at least another $1.2 trillion in deficit savings.
But since the supercommittee failed to do so, automatic spending cuts to the Pentagon and a wide array of domestic programs will start next year, unless lawmakers intervene.
The national debt has skyrocketed during Obama's first term - from $10.6 trillion to $15.2 trillion today. Much of the blame lies with the deep recession Obama inherited, which made revenues plummet, but almost $1 trillion of the increase can be attributed to Obama's 2009 deficit-financed economic stimulus bill.