Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Senate could vote Thursday to hike debt limit

Senate could vote Thursday to hike debt limit

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate could begin debate on Wednesday on legislation to increase U.S. borrowing authority, with a vote on the measure aimed at averting a government default possible on Thursday, congressional officials said.

Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, sketched out the timetable for the $781 billion increase in the U.S. debt limit. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said a vote by Thursday was possible "but not set in stone."

The U.S. Treasury Department has warned Congress that in order to avoid default, it needs an increase in its statutory borrowing authority by March 24 at the latest.

The current borrowing limit is $8.18 trillion and Democrats are expected to oppose the $781 billion increase without any roadmap for slowing the rapid runup in U.S. debt.

The House of Representatives initially passed a debt limit increase nearly a year ago as part of a fiscal 2006 budget blueprint. But if the Senate passes any amendments to the measure, it would have to go back to the House for approval.

Conrad said Democrats will offer up to three amendments to the debt limit bill.

One of those would be a Conrad "pay-go" amendment requiring tougher discipline on spending increases or tax cuts as part of the budget process. Under the measure, higher spending on many federal programs or tax cuts would have to be paid for with spending reductions elsewhere or tax increases.

By a 50-50 vote on Tuesday, the Senate rejected this amendment to a separate budget blueprint bill.