More problems, more debt

Senate Republicans cast symbolic campaign-season votes Wednesday to increase spending for border and port security _ one day before a likely vote to increase the national debt by an additional $781 billion, to $9 trillion.

The uncomfortable vote to increase the debt is the fourth since President Bush took office, and it comes as Republicans struggle to pass a budget plan for next year. GOP leaders have already dropped Bush’s plans for tax cuts and curbs to Medicare, but now his cap on appropriated spending is in danger as well.

After the expected vote Thursday, Democrats and moderate Republicans may succeed in adding $7 billion in spending for education and health care research to a GOP-driven plan for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

If successful, that would break through Bush’s requested cap on the amount of money available for spending bills.

The debt limit increase is an unhappy necessity; the alternative is a first-ever default on U.S. financial obligations. The Senate devoted just two hours to the topic Wednesday evening. Action on the debt limit is overshadowing the weeklong debate on the GOP’s budget blueprint.

Also, it comes as Republicans try to convince their supporters that they are getting serious about restraining spending.

Yet, in a series of budget votes this week, Republicans approved symbolic increases for politically sensitive programs such as education, port security and veterans’ benefits while distancing themselves from Bush’s proposal in an election year.

The debt limit bill is the fourth such measure required since Bush took office five years ago. If approved, the latest version would mean that the debt had grown over that span from about $6 trillion to $9 trillion _ about $30,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States.

“We are plunging deeper and deeper into debt and it is increasingly financed by foreigners,” said Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee. “We keep on spending, we keep on cutting taxes, we keep on funning up the debt.”

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Bush’s tax cuts account for just 30 percent of the debt limit increases required during his presidency. Revenue losses from a recession and new spending to combat terrorism and for the war in Iraq are also responsible, he said.

As for the $781 billion increase in the debt limit, Grassley said: “It is necessary to preserve the full faith and credit of the federal government.”

On the budget, the blueprint is a nonbinding measure proposing tax and spending guidelines for the next five years. GOP-sponsored spending increases approved Wednesday include $1 billion for port security, $900 million for grants to local law enforcement agencies, $2 billion for immigration enforcement and $1.3 billion for community development block grants.

But it is up to the Senate Appropriations Committee to make the actual spending decisions. Also, the overall amount spent on programs funded by Congress each year through appropriations bills would not increase.

The increases would be financed by a more than 1 percent across-the-board cut applied to every program subject to annual renewal through appropriations bills. In the case of defense, a $3 billion increase pushed through on Tuesday by Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., would turn into a cut of about $4 billion.

Many of the spending increases were aimed at undermining similar efforts by Democrats _ financed by tax increases _ and were typically pushed by GOP senators facing tough re-election races.

For example, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who won a 60-38 vote to restore a $1.3 billion cut proposed by Bush to the community development block grants program.

Wednesday’s developments came on top of moves Tuesday to add funds for defense, special education and veterans’ benefits.

All told, Republicans have endorsed about $11 billion in additional spending for selected accounts.

More substantively, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., appears poised to win an increase of $7 billion in new money for education and health research. That amount would break Bush’s $873 billion budget cap for 2007, which represents the most significant vestige of fiscal discipline remaining in Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg’s budget.

The underlying Senate budget plan is notable chiefly for dropping Bush’s proposed cuts to Medicare and for abandoning his efforts to expand health savings accounts or pass legislation to make permanent his 2001 tax cut bill.

Unlike last year, when Congress passed a bill trimming $39 billion from the deficit through curbs to Medicaid, Medicare and student loan subsidies, Senate GOP leaders have abandoned plans to pass another round of cuts to mandatory programs whose budgets go up each year as if on autopilot.

But Gregg’s measure reignites last year’s battle over allowing oil drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge because it would let Senate leaders bring a drilling measure to the floor under rules blocking a filibuster by opponents.

The GOP blueprint was not assured of passage on Thursday.

Already, four Republicans — Mike DeWine and George Voinovich of Ohio, Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island — have declared their opposition. Two more GOP defections would sink the budget, assuming every Democrat and Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords, an independent, vote against it.

© 2006 The Associated Press