RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
The Senate is expected to vote today to raise the federal debt limit to avoid defaulting on debt or shutting down government operations. This would be the fourth time in five years. However, few senators wish to be on record authorizing more debt, as NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA reporting: When President Bush took office five years ago, the national debt was $5.6 trillion and slated to shrink, as big budget surpluses rolled in. Since then, those surpluses have collapsed into huge annual deficits and the debt's shot up by nearly 50 percent and now stands at $8.2 trillion, the current statutory limit. The House has already authorize the extra $781 billion the Treasury's seeking for the government's credit line, so it's now up to the Senate to act.
But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid says this isn't his problem.
Senator HARRY REID (Senate Democratic Leader): If this is going to pass, the Republicans are going to have to pass it. This is a debt that has been driven by this administration. We're being asked to increase the debt from $8.2 trillion to approximately $9 trillion? We're not going to do that on our watch. They're going to have to do it on theirs.
WELNA: Not surprisingly, Senate Republicans disagree.
Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): For anybody to think that you can spend and spend and spend and not increase the debt limit, they aren't living in the real world.
WELNA: That's Iowa Republican Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. For him, not raising the debt limit is not an option.
Senator GRASSLEY: If we don't pass it, government doesn't function. And who wants to shut down the government? I can tell you, I learned a lesson in '95; don't plan on shutting down the government, it doesn't work.
WELNA: Congressional Republicans got blamed for that 1995 shutdown and with elections looming next fall, they're not looking for anymore of that. Republican Orrin Hatch will be on the ballot in Utah and he clearly does not relish the prospect of voting to raise the debt limit.
Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): Well, we have no choice. I mean, we're going to have to do it because of the way that the budget system works. It's a ridiculous system, but we have to live with it.
WELNA: Is it a tough vote to cast?
Senator HATCH: It can be misconstrued, so therefore, it is a tough vote to cast. But it has to be done, there's nothing else you can do.
WELNA: Montana Republican Conrad Burns is considered one of the Senate's most vulnerable incumbents in November. He too is not looking forward to a debt limit vote.
Senator CONRAD BURNS (Republican, Montana): It's a little on the tough side. Yeah, it is.
WELNA: How do you feel about the national debt?
Senator BURNS: It's getting too high.
WELNA: And will you vote to raise the limit?
Senator BURNS: Don't know.
WELNA: Other Republicans insist the national debt is no big deal.
Senator BOB BENNETT (Republican, Utah): In historic terms, the debt is well within manageable limits right now.
WELNA: That's Utah's other senator, Bob Bennett, who says the panic of some of his colleagues is not justified.
Senator BENNETT: Everybody looks at the debt in terms of total dollars and says, the debt is at the highest point in history! And the sky is falling and Chicken Little is right! The debt, in order to be understood, has to be measured as percentage of the size of the economy.
WELNA: But even that kind of comparison is hardly reassuring. White House budget officials expect the debt to be 67 percent of this year's gross domestic product. That's up from 58 percent GDP when President Bush took office. And it's the highest national debt to GDP ratio in more than half a century. That makes a tough choice for Ohio Republican Mike DeWine. He's facing a difficult reelection bid, but still says he'll vote to raise the ceiling.
Senator MIKE DEWINE (Republican, Ohio): I don't know that it's the responsible choice. I mean, if you have to raise the debt limit, you have to raise the debt limit. I don't know what other alternative there is.
WELNA: There is another alternative, though it's unlikely to solve the problem. It's a 45-year-old program run by the Bureau of the Public Debt that accepts private donations to reduce the debt.
Peter Hollenbach is the spokesman for the bureau.
Mr. PETER HOLLENBACH (Spokesman, Bureau of the Public Debt): Most of the gifts we get are modest, you know, $50 or $100. Although, occasionally, we do get somewhat larger gifts, bequests and things like that. Most of the folks that are actually writing us will express two things: a concern that the government's in debt and wanting to give a little something back to their country.
WELNA: Those gifts last year added up to less than $1.5 million, less than one five-millionth of the national debt.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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