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Debt ceiling passed, tidbits from the trail

SnowpacolypseFrustrated Americans may have learned the secret to motivating legislators to act quickly in Washington this week: Snow.

Eager to leave town ahead of a snowstorm, a “clean” debt ceiling bill was passed without any of the showmanship that stalled the debt ceiling hike last fall. It passed the House on Tuesday 221-201 and the Senate on Wednesday on a vote of 55-43.

The entire Nebraska delegation to Washington voted against extending the debt ceiling. The legislation, which is now headed for President Obama’s signature, suspends the debt ceiling until March 15, 2015, well past the November mid-term elections. The U.S. was expected to hit the current debt ceiling on Feb. 27.

Also on Wednesday, the Senate passed legislation that would repeal the 1 percent cut in military retirement pay for working-age retirees. Lengthy, expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have boosted military benefits to the point that they consume more than half of the American defense budget. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the Pentagon and Hill leaders are seeking ways to cut benefits, but heavy lobbying by veterans’ groups has stymied attempts at reform.

Bank executive and Nebraska Senate candidate Sid Dinsdale has opened a campaign office in Lincoln in the Candy Factory, 201 N. Eighth St. in the Haymarket. Dinsdale is an Elkhorn resident and chairman of Pinnacle Bancorp. His campaign website describes him as anti-Obamacare, anti-debt, pro-Keystone Pipeline and  secure-the-borders-first on immigration reform.

Republican wordmeister Frank Luntz would be proud of Republican Senate candidate Shane Osborn. In an interview with Brent Martin of the Nebraska Radio Network, Osborn remembered to use the word “bill” to describe Obamacare. Last year, with the launch of Obamacare looming, Republicans began referring to the Affordable Care Act as a bill, despite the fact that it had been law for nearly four years. Osborn also remembered to suggest that President Obama was a lawless dictator for delaying the employer mandate again.

Back to business as usual

With less than 24 hours left until a likely default, the House and Senate reached agreement late Wednesday on a deal that reopens the federal government and avoids a breach of the debt ceiling.

By a margin of  81-19 in the Senate and 285-144 in the House, Congress approved H.R. 2775 to fund the government through Jan. 15 and covers the debt limit until Feb. 7

Nebraska’s entire delegation, Sens. Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer, and Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, Lee Terry and Adrian Smith, supported the measure.

Smith, Terry and Fortenberry were among the 87 House Republicans who joined 198 Democrats in passing the budget and debt deal. In the Senate, the measure gained the support of all Democrats and all but 18 Republicans.

Voting against it were such vocal opponents as Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas,  Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Mike Lee of Utah. There was concern earlier in the day that Cruz would use a procedural move to delay the vote until at least Thursday.

The Senate voted about 9 p.m. CDT and the House voted just after 11:15 p.m. CDT.

In the end, Republicans had little to show for the 16-day shutdown of the federal government and stretching the debt ceiling to the brink. They failed to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act, although they did win a minor concession involving income verification for those receiving federal subsidies to buy health insurance.

No answers for the folks back home

Republican rhetoric about the debt ceiling is beginning to sound amazingly like the rhetoric that proceeded the government shutdown. Whether the GOP’s “no big deal” talk is a signal that Republicans are ready to take us into a default remains to be seen, but it isn’t encouraging.

Pro-shutdown and default positions, once staked out only by Congress’ newest and most extreme members, have lately taken on a mainstream flavor. Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a member of the Senate since 2005, who previously served three terms in the U.S. House, joined the bandwagon Monday.

“There’s no such thing as a debt ceiling in this country because it’s never not been increased, and that’s why we’re $17 trillion in debt,” said Coburn said Monday on “CBS This Morning.”

“I would dispel the rumor that’s going around that you hear on every newscast that if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, we’ll default on our debt. We won’t. We’ll continue to pay our interest, we’ll continue to redeem bonds, and we’ll issue new bonds to replace them.”

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said Sunday that default could be avoided if the U.S. prioritizes the payment of its obligations. That could mean officials would have to weigh making payments to foreign bondholders against sending out Social Security or veterans’ benefits because the federal government spends more  each month than it takes in.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said that “prioritization” is just another word for default.  It is also unknown what damage an attempt at prioritization would have on the economy and financial markets. America has never defaulted and neither has it ever tried such a prioritization plan.

Just the fact that the debt ceiling matter is up for debate is making markets jittery. In 2011, there was so little faith that the parties would end their bickering in time to avoid default.  Standard & Poor’s downgraded American’s credit rating for the first time in history.  The last country to make it back to AAA after a downgrade spent 19 years doing so.

Sadly it’s hard to find a member of the Nebraska Congressional delegation who  is taking  a firm stance on the debt ceiling.  None has posted their position on their official web site, even though the deadline is next week.  In the media, their comments are mostly limited to the old-news shutdown.

Do Sens. Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer think no Nebraskans own Treasury bills? Do Reps. Lee Terry, Jeff Fortenberry and Adrian Smith not understand that many of the elderly are already worried about their November Social Security checks?

2nd District Rep. Jeff Fortenberry was one of those who supported the 2011 fight over the debt ceiling that led to the credit downgrade. He has  since said he would not support another debt ceiling fight — but not recently.

Freshman Sen. Deb Fischer may even support the drama of the twin shutdown-default fights. In one of her September columns, Fischer wrote:

“This pair of decisions present Congress with the opportunity to address our out-of-control spending. Nebraskans know that Congress doesn’t act unless it is forced to do so. That’s why I look forward to the debates on our rising debt.”

Nebraskans should be getting loud-and-clear answers from their Washington delegation. We saw our home values and retirement accounts trashed in the 2008 economic crisis. We’ve been through the deepest recession since the Great Depression. Our families have suffered layoffs, and now the hardships of the shutdown. We are a nation at war. Why do our leaders in Washington think it’s OK to shut down the government while our military fights a war that Congress created?

The “Prioritization” option may seem like an alternative, but it’s not. The nation’s payment system is automated for efficiency. Even if the Treasury Department could find enough fountain pens, paper ledgers and green eye shades to un-automate, there are too many bills and too few Treasury employees to make it work. Most of them at home, furloughed.

Nebraska’s senior senator, Mike Johanns, has voted both for and against past debt ceiling increases, but hasn’t said whether he would support an increase this month. He did say, however, that he’s worried about the situation. Aren’t we all?

Washington Drama Queens

Legislation to continue funding the federal government after Monday, continues to ping-pong between the House and the Senate.

In Sunday’s wee hours, the House passed a new version of H.J. Res. 59, the Continuing Appropriations Resolution 2014, with a poison pill potent enough to ensure its rejection by the Senate.

By a vote of 231-192, the House agreed to send to the Senate a measure that would keep the government open for another six weeks, until Dec. 15, but would delay the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, for a year and would delay contraceptive coverage for women from employer-paid health insurance policies.

All three of Nebraska’s members of Congress, Lee Terry, Adrian Smith and Jeff Fortenberry, voted for the measure.

Just two days earlier, the Senate stripped out a similar attempt to kill Obamacare and passed a “clean” funding measure on a vote of 54-44, with both Nebraska senators, Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer, voting against the clean bill.

Although the Republicans control the House, Democrats control the Senate. With the votes of just 51 of the 54 Democrats in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid could essentially kill the House’s version of the resolution. That would only add pressure to Speaker John Boehner to come up with a spending measure that does not defund the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Reid has assured Boehner that a provision to kill or delay Obamacare will never pass the Senate and, even if does, it faces a certain veto from President Obama, and Republicans lack the votes to override that veto.

Altogether, it means a government shutdown at 12:01 Tuesday, the same day Americans now without health insurance can start shopping for coverage. The full roll-out of the Affordable Care Act begins Jan. 1.

The House’s move to delay Obamacare for a year seems to be just a set-up for continuing chaos in Washington. Twelve months from now, the House will still be controlled by the Republicans, the Democrats will still control the Senate, and President Obama will still be president. Because the Republican measure funds the government only until Dec. 15, the likelihood of a government shutdown over the holidays would continue to loom large.

The House also passed a provision Sunday that would keep paychecks flowing to the military personnel in the event of a shutdown, but some 7,000 other government employees would be without paychecks for the duration.

Also looming on the horizon is the additional drama that will come in October from raising the debt ceiling. House Republicans now plan to hold an increase in the debt ceiling hostage to a laundry list of GOP priorities, including a year-long delay of the ACA and approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with future government spending. It merely gives the government the authorization to pay the bills that Congress has already incurred from previous budgets. By not raising the debt ceiling, Congress ensures that government bills will go unpaid.

Defaulting on financial obligations has much the same creditworthy-crashing effect on our government as it would on any household, only the impact on world markets would be 300 million percent larger.

More chaos. More drama. When does it stop?

Crunch time in Washington

With only a few working days left until the start of a new fiscal year Oct.1, the U.S. House of Representatives may be burning the midnight oil this week to avert a government shutdown.

Tea Partiers, having taken the de-funding of Obamacare hostage as a condition for the passage of a new budget, leave no clear path toward a resolution of the budget. The House has only this week to resolve issue because it will be in recess again the following week.

If a new budget isn’t passed by Sept. 30, all but the most essential government offices will go dark on Oct. 1.

Also facing Congress is the need to raise the debt ceiling in the next few weeks. Raising the debt ceiling would allow the government to continue paying its bills, but there is strong public sentiment against it.

The debt ceiling involves only money previously spent — it has no link to future spending — but fiscal hawks and a confused public seem to think that not raising the debt ceiling would allow lawmakers to rein in future spending.

In 2011, with Congress at a similar impasse over raising the U.S. debt ceiling, the American credit rating was downgraded for the first time in history.

A low credit score makes household borrowing more difficult and expensive. Similarly, not raising the American debt ceiling could make borrowing more difficult and more expensive because it would make investments seem riskier and more prone to default.