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Debt limit bill clears Congress, heads to Obama

– Congress passed must-do legislation Thursday to permit the government to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars more to meet its obligations, averting a first-ever government default that had loomed as early as mid-February.

The 64-34 vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate sent the measure to President Obama, who has said he will sign it. The Republican-led House passed the legislation last week.

The legislation would temporarily suspend the $16.4 trillion limit on federal borrowing, which experts say would allow the government to borrow about $450 billion to meet interest payments and obligations like Social Security benefits and government salaries.

The deadline for Congress to act again to prevent default would likely not come until August, according to calculations by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank.

Without the bill, the Treasury Department says, the government would default on its obligations by as early as mid-February.

The Senate vote broke exactly opposite of the House tally last week. Just 12 Republican senators voted for the measure, which swept through the House with widespread GOP support. Only one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, opposed the bill. In the House, most Democrats opposed the legislation.

Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., voted in favor of the measure, while Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., voted against it.

“This decision only continues the practice of governing from crisis to crisis, from cliff to cliff, and pushing through flawed, haphazard legislation at the last minute,” Coats said in a floor speech.

Bills that extend the debt ceiling and delay meaningful spending cuts “are like trying to put out a five-alarm fire by an occasional squeeze of a squirt gun.”

But Donnelly said in a statement, “It is essential to the ongoing economic recovery and to the full faith and credit of the United States that we continue to pay our bills while we work to cut government spending.”

Brian Francisco of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.