WASHINGTON -- A divided Senate approved an $800 billion increase in the federal debt limit yesterday, a major boost in borrowing that Senator John Kerry and other Democrats blamed on the fiscal policies of President Bush.
The 52-44 vote, mostly along party lines, was expected to be followed by House passage today. Enactment would raise the government's borrowing limit to $8.18 trillion -- more than eight times the total federal debt that existed when President Reagan took office in 1981.
In his first remarks on the Senate floor since Kerry's presidential bid ended in defeat two weeks ago, the Massachusetts Democrat said his former opponent had presided over ''the worst fiscal turnaround in our nation's entire history."
He was referring to the change from the $5.6 trillion in surpluses that were projected for the next 10 years when Bush took office in 2001, to the $2.3 trillion in deficits now estimated for the coming decade. Kerry and other Democrats complained that those bills will have to be paid by future generations.
''This can be called a birth tax, a birth tax that is dumped on the back of every American child unwillingly," said Kerry, who voted against the borrowing increase.
Republican senators did not join in the debate, underscoring how politically uncomfortable the measure is for them. They had refused to bring the bill to a vote before the elections.
Administration officials urged lawmakers to act quickly. The government reached its $7.38 trillion borrowing cap last month, and since then the Treasury Department has paid federal bills by taking cash from a civil service retirement account, which it plans to repay.
''We are nearing the end of our rope, and it is critical that Congress act," said Treasury spokesman Rob Nichols.
Failure to raise the debt ceiling could force a federal default and leave the government unable to pay Social Security recipients, federal workers, and other obligations.
The Senate took its debt-limit vote as congressional bargainers used the lame-duck session to continue writing a giant $388 billion spending measure to finance scores of agencies over the next 10 months.