* House vote seen taking place on Wednesday
* Lawmaker salaries in escrow if budget deadline missed
By David Lawder
WASHINGTON, Jan 21 Republican leaders in the
House of Representatives said they aim to pass on Wednesday a
nearly four-month extension of the U.S. debt limit, to May 19.
The measure does not specify a new dollar amount but allows
the government to borrow what is needed to meet its obligations
during the extension period, according to legislative language
released on Monday.
The proposed extension is a strategic move by House
Republicans to back away from a fight over the federal debt
ceiling and shift their demands to other fiscal deadlines that
would not risk a devastating default on U.S. debt.
These deadlines include a March 1 launch of automatic
spending cuts and a March 27 expiration of funding for
government agencies and programs.
The U.S. Treasury expects to exhaust current authority to
borrow money, now at $16.4 trillion, sometime between
mid-February and early March.
The strategy shift, agreed last week by House Republicans at
a retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia, also aims to draw the
Democratic-controlled Senate into taking action to cut deficits
by requiring it to pass a budget resolution by April 15.
Under the proposed legislation, if either the House or
Senate fails to meet the April 15 budget deadline, lawmakers'
pay would be withheld under the measure until their chamber
passes a budget. If none is passed, they would eventually get
paid, but not until next Jan. 15.
The Senate has not passed a budget in nearly four years,
drawing Republican complaints that it is unwilling to make tough
decisions to reform costly government healthcare programs.
There is also some wiggle room in the extension to May 19,
because the U.S. Treasury would be able to replenish its sources
of emergency borrowing capacity. This could allow it to keep
borrowing for six to eight additional weeks, pushing back a
final day of reckoning to perhaps mid-July.
Top Democrats have voiced doubts about the Republican plan.
Assistant Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of
Illinois said short-term debt-limit extensions would keep
business investment plans languishing in uncertainty.
"I wish they'd stop playing games with the debt ceiling,"
Senator Charles Schumer, another member of the Senate
Democratic leadership, said on Sunday that the Senate would pass
a budget, but it would contain more revenue increases.
House Republican budgets passed in each of the past two
years have relied solely on deep spending cuts to entitlement
programs such as Medicare and Medicaid to shrink deficits.
Obama has been reluctant to make deep cuts to these
programs. In his inaugural speech he underscored their value,
saying they "do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us."
The House Rules Committee is scheduled to set conditions for
debate on the legislation, including rules for any amendments,
at an emergency meeting on Tuesday.