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The Senate agreed Thursday to a short-term extension in government borrowing power while rejecting an amendment that would have guaranteed military paychecks even if the government runs out of money.
Passed and sent to President Obama for his signature was a short-term debt ceiling bill that allows the government to keep spending through May 18, delaying a financial crisis that threatens to have wide impact. The House passed the bill, HR 325, on Jan. 23.
By a 53-45 vote, the Senate rejected the pay protection amendment offered by Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., to "prioritize" government obligations if the nation reaches a legal limit on the national debt.
Toomey's amendment would have made it a priority to fund interest on publicly held debt, Social Security benefits, and pay and allowances for the military.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Senate Finance Committee chairman, led the opposition to the amendment. Baucus said he had nothing against troops or Social Security benefits, but paying them while letting other federal programs wither struck him as something out of "The Hunger Games," where survival depends on killing others.
"It would be total chaos," Baucus said. "This is a very, very disruptive amendment. You think the country is worried about a lack of confidence now? If this were the law, there would be even less confidence."
Several similar bills have been introduced in the House and Senate, but congressional leaders are reluctant to exempt some programs while leaving others unprotected.
On a similar 53-45 vote, the Senate tabled another amendment to HR 325 by Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that would automatically fund federal agencies if annual appropriations expired. Portman's amendment would have kept agencies funded at the level of the previous fiscal year for 120 days, and then cut funding by 1 percentage point every additional 90 days that an appropriations bill is not passed.
The Debt Ceiling Act, which passed the Senate on 64-34 vote, seeks to spur congressional action on the budget by threatening to withhold congressional pay. It requires the House and Senate to pass by April 15 a nonbonding budget resolution, which is a guide to federal spending and revenues used to work out more detailed budgets. If a resolution is not passed, congressional pay will be withheld until either a budget is passed or the 113th session of Congress ends.