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Government, Politics & Issues

Congressional debt-ceiling vote was a uniter, and a divide

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 1, 2011 - Tuesday's debt-ceiling vote in the U.S. House was remarkable, marking a rare incident where a progressive Democrat like Russ Carnahan would be on the same side as conservative Republican Todd Akin.

Just under half of the chamber's Democrats joined all the Republicans in opposing the proposed hike in the debt ceiling from its current $14.3 trillion. The vote was 318 against, compared to 97 in support.

Republicans, including Blaine Luetkemeyer of St. Elizabeth and Akin of Wildwood, said their votes signaled that they won't support a ceiling hike unless President Barack Obama and Democrats back deep budget cuts. Republicans have been particularly upset with recent Democratic attacks directed at the GOP budget proposal that transforms Medicare into a voucher program.

"If the president and Democrats want you to pay their bills, they are going to have to cut up the credit cards first because I am not willing to allow Washington to write blank checks and to continue on a reckless spending binge that puts our families and our nation at huge financial risk," said Luetkemeyer in a statement after the vote.

Said Akin, who is running for the U.S. Senate in 2012: "Without ensuring that we cut our annual deficit, cap spending and make a solid, long-term balanced budget plan, it is simply foolish to continue to increase the nation's debt limit."

But Carnahan was among the Democrats who blasted the vote as meaningless -- and aimed solely at misleading the public.

"This bill was scheduled over Memorial Day weekend; there were no debate, no discussions and no negotiations. This vote was a political stunt, and I voted no because we're not going to fall for it," said Carnahan (who is considering whether to run for Akin's current 2nd District House seat in 2012). "Once silly season is over, I look forward to sitting down with Democrats and Republicans, having a serious discussion about reducing the deficit and setting aside our differences to get this done."

Democrats voted against the measure at the urging at House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. (and who'd recently visited St. Louis for a Carnahan fundraiser), who contended that the vote was aimed at trapping Democrats so that Republicans could use their pro-debt ceiling vote in TV ads

Republicans deny that's the case. Still, GOP groups took aim at some of those "no" votes, such as U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, who earlier this month sided with economic experts who said that failure to raise the debt ceiling could lead to a financial collapse.

The National Republican Congressional Committee contended that Costello "ran for political cover today in the face of overwhelming unpopularity'' of increasing the debt ceiling. "Costello might be attempting to run away from his demands for another government spending credit card after maxing out his first one, but Illinois voters will see through his Washington political games," said NRCC Communications Director Paul Lindsay.

Tuesday's debt-ceiling proposal was a "clean bill'' with no other matters on it.  U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, declared that his vote against the bill was to reinforce his view that "we must tie any increase in the debt ceiling to budgetary controls and/or significant cuts."

But Shimkus also appeared to play down the significance of Tuesday's vote by noting that Obama, while in the U.S. Senate, had voted against a clean debt limit increase.

Overall, Shimkus added, "a clean debt limit increase has only passed Congress 10 out of 27 times since 1985. Budget measures have been tied to the increases in those 17 other times."

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, offered an analogy. "If the national debt were a pile of one dollar bills, it would cover the distance from the earth to the moon three times," she said. "We have a massive debt problem that will require tough choices to fix. The catch is this: the longer we wait to make those choices and to rein in the size of government, the more difficult those choices will be."

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