WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives' Tuesday vote against a "clean" debt limit increase — one with no budget cuts attached — was largely a political exercise from both parties eager to embarrass the other side.
The 318 to 97 vote against increasing the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit, a figure reached a few weeks ago, was organized by Republicans who were against such a move unless it included major spending cuts. Democrats wanted a debt limit increase with no such strings attached.
Vice President Joe Biden is leading bipartisan talks aimed at finding those cuts — and perhaps new ways of raising revenue. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said the government is likely to run out of borrowing authority on Aug. 2.
Democrats decried the GOP-orchestrated vote Tuesday as little more than a cynical political ploy.
"It will not be an adult moment on the floor of the House of Representatives," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., before the vote.
"If we were adults, and acting as adults, we would come together and give certainty to the markets that, of course America is going to pay its bills — bills that we have all incurred over the last 30 years."
Democrats warned votes like the one Tuesday could rattle financial markets.
"It sends a terrible message to the international community," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "I can't think of a way that is much more irresponsible than bringing up an extension of the debt limit extension just to show it can't pass."
Republicans maintained it's Democrats who are irresponsible. Where, GOP leaders asked, is the Democrats' plan to reduce the debt and deficits? This year's deficit is expected to hit $1.5 trillion, and the government is expected to accumulate $7 trillion wroth of deficits over the next 10 years.
House Democrats offered a plan that would add about $7.5 trillion to the deficit over the decade, while Obama's fiscal 2012 budget blueprint would add $7.1 trillion to the national debt over the same period. Senate Democrats haven't come up with a plan.
Republicans wasted little time charging Democrats Monday with ducking the debt issue. The GOP's congressional campaign committee sent out statements to media in the vulnerable Democrats' districts.
The member, the statement said, "loyally aided his Democrat leaders in racking up the most debt in American history, and he is showing no signs of abandoning his free-spending ways. When (member's name) votes today to continue these policies free from any spending cuts, he'll be requiring more tax dollars from the pockets of Pennsylvania families who all share the increasing government debt burden to foreign countries like China."
Some Republican leaders were more circumspect, insisting that they weren't playing politics, and saw the debt limit as a solid vehicle to force spending reductions.
"There's always the issue of how you get something done, and nothing focuses the attention of both branches of government . . . ike the decision to raise the debt ceiling," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
"It puts everybody at the table on a bipartisan basis, and everybody knows something must be done."
But did the Tuesday vote go too far?
Actually allowing the nation to run out of money could cause credit ratings agencies like Standard & Poor's to downgrade U.S. bonds, even if the U.S. doesn't default on its debt.
That would unleash a punishing set of chain reactions that would likely raise borrowing costs for government, consumers and businesses alike, at a time when economic growth is already sluggish and being downgraded for the rest of the year.
Experts warn that Congress is playing a game of chicken with the nation's finances.
"It's political posturing and both sides are playing to their base," said Michael Munger, a political science professor at Duke University.
(Kevin G. Hall contributed to this article.)
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