House To Vote On Short-Term Debt Ceiling Extension

The House is expected to vote Wednesday on a Republican leadership plan to put off the debt ceiling fight for three months. This marks a new strategy for House Republicans who until recently had pledged not to raise the debt ceiling unless it was matched with an equal amount of spending cuts.

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Now, the House votes today on a bill that would temporarily suspend the federal government's debt limit. Instead of crashing the world financial system in a few weeks, the government would be able to continue normal business until May 18.

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Until very recently, House Republicans had said they would not raise the debt limit without spending cuts - cuts that they wanted. President Obama had told them he would not negotiate what he called a ransom.

INSKEEP: And now the House takes a different approach. Here's NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The bill temporarily suspends the debt limit, putting off that high-stakes fight for three months without demanding any new spending cuts in return. But that's not what House Speaker John Boehner wants to focus on.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Hard-working taxpayers understand that they've got to balance their budgets, whether it's every week or every month. They also believe that it's time for Washington to balance its budget.

KEITH: There was a new blue backdrop when Boehner held a press conference last night, highlighting the official title of the bill: the No Budget No Pay Act. In addition to raising the debt limit, the bill also says that if either the House or the Senate fails to pass a budget by the legal deadline of April 15, members of that house will have their pay withheld.

BOEHNER: It's been nearly four years since the Senate has done a budget. Most Americans believe you don't do your job, you shouldn't get paid. That's the basis for No Budget No Pay. It's time for the Senate to act.

KEITH: It really, really bugs House Republicans that the Democratic Senate hasn't passed a budget. Federal budgets are more political documents than anything else. They set broad goals but don't appropriate actual money. Still, House Republicans want Democrats on the record. And the other thing: Every day Boehner's party isn't accused of holding the nation's economy hostage by way of a debt ceiling fight is a good day. Polls found that the last debt ceiling fight in 2011 was awful for the Republican brand. And it wasn't good for the economy either, says MIT economist Simon Johnson.

SIMON JOHNSON: Take the debt ceiling off the table.

KEITH: That was Johnson's impassioned plea to a House committee yesterday. As for the three-month extension being considered today, he told the committee short-term extensions only extend the uncertainty.

JOHNSON: You will continue to undermine the private sector. You will continue to delay investment and to reduce employment relative to what it would be otherwise.

KEITH: Many House Democrats are similarly skeptical of this temporary debt limit reprieve. Jim McGovern is from Massachusetts.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCGOVERN: I do not believe that we should be politicizing the debt ceiling. I guess I should be happy that we're not going to default immediately because we're going to kick the can down the road for three months. But I'm tired of governing by gimmicks.

KEITH: When asked about the end game, whether this just means a new debt ceiling fight in May, a number of House Republicans said they weren't sure how it turns out. Even if the Senate were to pass this bill and the president signed it, there would still be three fiscal deadlines - they'd just come in a different order - first, the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester; then a possible government shutdown; and finally the debt ceiling again. Louisiana Republican John Fleming says he thinks saving the debt ceiling for later gives Republicans a strategic advantage.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN FLEMING: We get that off the table temporarily, the sequestration automatically goes into law and the cuts are the kind of cuts we want. They're just not in the places that we want, but they're also not in the place that the Democrats want. So hopefully they'll be forced to come to the table and work with us.

KEITH: As to whether that would actually happen, he says both sides can agree they don't like the current form of those automatic spending cuts.

FLEMING: We may be singing Kumbaya before it's all over with. Who knows? But don't hold your breath.

KEITH: Senate leaders haven't said what they plan to do with this bill once it comes over. The White House says even in this form the president would sign it. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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