That the national debt limit needs to be raised because we are borrowing so much money is no great secret, but Republicans in Congress want to raise that limit with as little public notice as possible. That would rule out a freestanding vote because that would highlight the record deficits the Republicans have run up over the last three years.
The Democrats, retroactive converts to the cause of balanced budgets, would point out that, after taking office with the publicly held share of the national debt declining thanks to four years of surpluses, the Bush administration has had to twice ask that the borrowing cap be lifted, for a total of $1.4 trillion.
Now it needs a third of about $690 billion -- and soon. That would take the gross national debt to more than $8 trillion, an impressive number. The leadership had hoped to slip the increase through as part of a congressional budget resolution, but for the second year in a row, House and Senate Republicans might not be able to agree on a budget.
So House Republican leaders hatched a plan to attach the debt limit to a huge, $417 billion defense spending bill that was certain to pass. It worked; on Tuesday the defense spending bill passed, 403 to 17 -- although the vote to attach the debt limit provision was approved only 220-196.
The plan fell apart in the Senate, however, when angry Democrats threatened to block action on any defense spending legislation that included the debt ceiling provisions. Rather than risk that happening, Republican leaders promised that the debt ceiling language would not be part of the final legislation. With that, the defense bill moved toward likely passage in the Senate today.
The White House, for its part, is anxious to get this issue settled and out of the way lest some Ross Perot type make it a political issue as happened to the first President Bush in 1992.
The Treasury will bump up against the $7.3 trillion debt limit later this summer. The White House has told congressional Republicans that Bush's Treasury secretary, John Snow, could stall for time, and maybe even get past the November election without lifting the cap, by juggling some government accounts and borrowing from others.
But there's a problem: When President Clinton's Treasury secretary Robert Rubin did that, these same congressional Republicans threatened to impeach him. It's so true in Washington: What goes around, comes around.