The Senate on Wednesday voted 55-43 to clear legislation (S. 540) to suspend the debt limit until March 15, 2015, without any policy riders attached. Senators earlier voted to end debate, 67-31, with 12 Republicans joining all Democrats and independents to advance the bill.
The House sent the debt limit extension to the Senate on Tuesday, by a vote of 221-201. All but two House Democrats pushed it to passage, and only 28 Republicans voted for it. Nearly 90 percent of the House GOP who voted opposed the measure.
House leadership had originally scheduled a vote on the debt limit extension for Wednesday, but moved the vote up a day so members could leave Washington before a predicted snowstorm hits the region. It had also reversed course Tuesday morning on attaching any policy riders, such as restoring cuts to military pension cost-of-living adjustments and creating a fund for an overhaul of the Medicare sustainable growth rate.
A suspension of the debt limit enacted in the deal that ended the October shutdown (P.L. 113-46) expired February 7. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said last week that the “extraordinary measures” to sustain U.S. borrowing would likely not last beyond February 27. Congress is also scheduled to be on recess through the week of Presidents Day, which added urgency to clearing the debt limit extension before departing in time to avoid the snowstorm.
In other budget news, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) confirmed Wednesday it will release the President’s FY15 budget request in two parts, with the majority to be issued on March 4 and more detailed information to be released on March 11. OMB said the main budget volume, key proposals, summary tables, agency-level information and the detailed appendix would be included in the first March 4 release. The budget’s historical tables and analytical perspectives volume will come the following week. OMB said the two-stage release should not affect congressional handling of the president’s request since all relevant information for Congress will be included in information released on March 4.
The Senate on Wednesday cleared legislation that would strip from the December budget deal a cut in military retiree pensions and replace it with future reductions in mandatory spending.
Senators voted 95-3 to back the legislation (S. 25) after the House advanced the legislation on Tuesday, 326-90. The new bill would modify the budget agreement (P.L. 113-67), which included a 1 percent reduction in the annual cost-of-living adjustment for the pensions of military retirees under age 62 and would extend sequestration for mandatory programs, including Medicare, for one year, until fiscal 2024, to offset the cost of the bill. Under the legislation, the pension adjustment would apply only to members or former members of the armed forces who joined the military after January 1, 2014.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that reducing the cost-of-living adjustment would save approximately $6.2 billion from fiscal 2016, when the cut was to take effect, through fiscal 2023. Members of both parties expressed displeasure with the offset. But ahead of the vote, senators conceded that the House-passed measure was likely the best option to repeal the pension cut, which is politically unpopular with both parties.
Chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Barbara Boxer (D-CA) announced Wednesday that the committee should be marking up a five- or six-year surface transportation authorization in April. The bill will not include a title to fix the Highway Trust Fund, which falls within the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee; however, Boxer said that her panel’s bill would lay out a marker for the tax writers to meet.
Because federal fuel taxes have not been raised since 1993 and motorists are driving fewer miles in more fuel-efficient vehicles, receipts from gas and diesel taxes have not kept pace with authorized spending. To plug the gap, the 2012 highway law (P.L. 112-141) included more than $21 billion in general-fund transfers to meet authorized obligations. In the absence of a long-term fix for the trust fund, Congress cleared only a two-year surface transportation authorization in 2012. Boxer said that she and the panel’s ranking Republican David Vitter of Louisiana plan to write the longer-term federal highway and transit policy legislation this year.
Vitter and Boxer hope that mapping out a five- or six-year bill will encourage incoming Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and ranking Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah to find a way to fix the trust fund.
The House and Senate have both adjourned for the President’s Day holiday and will be in recess all next week. The next Weekly Legislative Update will cover the week of February 24-28.