House OK’s debt package

Broad measure draws fire in both parties, heads to expected Senate passage today

By Matt Viser and Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / August 2, 2011

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WASHINGTON - The US House last night approved a sweeping package that would cut trillions from the deficit and raise the debt limit, capping weeks of raucous debate and sending the measure to the Senate a day before the government faces default on its obligations.

The compromise legislation is widely expected to pass the Senate in a vote scheduled for noon today, enabling President Obama to sign it just hours before the country would run out of money to meet its financial obligations.

During an emotional day, with acrimony evident behind closed doors and in public view, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans decried the terms of the deal. Republicans wanted further domestic spending cuts - and fewer to defense programs - while Democrats said the proposal put at risk some entitlement programs they cherish and should have included tax increases.

But much of the partisan rancor seemed to evaporate when Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who was shot in the head earlier this year at a town hall meeting, made a surprise appearance in the House chamber with about three minutes left to vote on the debt deal. Large applause broke out and members crowded around her.

“It’s really good,’’ Vice President Joe Biden said afterward. “Here I am hugging Gabby and Michele Bachmann. . . . There’s a basic humanity here, man. It matters.’’

The House vote, 269 to 161, was passed with the support of 174 Republicans and 95 Democrats. Only three of the 10 Massachusetts House Democrats voted in favor of the plan, representatives Bill Keating of Quincy; Stephen Lynch of South Boston; and Niki Tsongas of Lowell.

The deal would allow the country’s borrowing limit to increase by at least $2 trillion, which would prevent the looming cash shortage and would cover spending demands until 2013. It would also cut spending by $1 trillion, spread over the next 10 years, and would establish a process to identify another $1.5 trillion in cuts to the deficit.

A 12-member bipartisan congressional committee would be given the job of identifying the reductions in the deficit by late November. Those cuts could come through new revenues by overhauling the tax code, or through cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. If the committee is deadlocked, or if Congress doesn’t pass the panel’s recommendations, it would automatically trigger cuts.

Those cuts would hit defense spending, which is opposed by Republicans, and domestic programs, which is opposed by Democrats. It would hit payments to Medicare providers, but not to Medicare beneficiaries.

Tempers were running high yesterday, which seemed to be one reason House and Senate leaders scheduled quick votes to prevent the deal from falling apart. As debate began on the House floor late in the afternoon, protesters began shouting, “Hey Boehner get a clue, it’s about revenue!’’

Both of the senators from Massachusetts - John Kerry, a Democrat, and Scott Brown, a Republican - were expected to vote for the legislation when it comes to the Senate floor today.

“Everyone’s having to give a little, and get a little bit, they took the best of all the bills and here we are,’’ Brown told reporters yesterday, adding that potential defense cuts worried him. “This basically takes the best of all the things I was concerned about and puts it forward, it doesn’t raise taxes, it steps back from default, it obviously makes serious cuts, real cuts.’’

Kerry said in an interview that he would support the plan, but said the proposal disappointed many Democrats - including himself - because it did not include any guarantee of new revenues.

“It’s not the deal that a lot of us would have made, and it’s not the deal we wanted, but I think avoiding default is critical, paramount to the country,’’ he said.

“We just have to move on,’’ Kerry added. “We need to use this time more effectively than it’s been used to help the country understand what the choices are.’’

The Massachusetts House delegation was torn over the vote, having to choose between sending the country into default or approving cuts that would hurt programs they have based their careers on protecting.

“This is the most difficult decision I’ve had to make,’’ said Representative Barney Frank, a 16-term Newton Democrat who voted against the bill. “I don’t want to see the pain that’ll come if it doesn’t pass.’’

Frank said he woke up yesterday morning planning to support the agreement until he learned more yesterday about the details. He thought defense spending cuts were assured through the next decade, but the deal only guarantees cuts for the next two years. The cuts also do not apply to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Frank wants to bring to an end.

“I was ready to make the big compromise, but now I don’t see it as much of a compromise,’’ he said.

Representative Lynch, the South Boston Democrat, said he was reluctantly voting for the package.

“There’s a certain resigned acceptance that this is the best we’re going to get under the circumstances,’’ he said. “Look at this deal, it’s better than default.’’

Advocacy groups on both sides of the ideological spectrum, meanwhile are wasting no time weighing in with their thoughts. The conservative Club for Growth said the agreement does not go far enough on spending cuts and doesn’t rule out tax increases. The liberal group said it doesn’t offer a balanced approach.

“It forces deep cuts to important programs that protect the middle class, but asks nothing of big corporations and millionaires,’’ the group said.

Democrats had a broader complaint that the playing field seemed tilted too far to the right, even though they hold both the Senate majority and the White House.

“People on the right are upset, people on the left are upset, people in the middle are upset,’’ Senate majority leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor. “It was a compromise.’’

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, as he exited the Capitol last night, professed himself “optimistic’’ about today’s vote. “It looks good,’’ he said.

Even as Republicans decried some aspects of the deal, they reveled in the fact that they had moved the discussion in Washington away from federal stimulus spending or health care reform and toward cutting the size of government.

“It takes a long time to change the direction of a very large ship. We have spent the last seven months changing it,’’ said Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican. “No matter what people think about whether this is good enough or not, we are spending less because the American people elected Republicans to control the House.’’

The House, after voting, immediately adjourned with no votes scheduled until Sept. 7.

Theo Emery of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser is at Donovan Slack is at