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Congress's early task: What to do about national debt ceiling?

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As the national debt closed in on the new $12.104 trillion ceiling, the House last April voted to increase the limit by $925 billion, to $13.029 trillion. But the Senate couldn’t come up with 60 votes to allow that increase. So Congress passed a $290 billion short-term fix to raise the federal debt ceiling to $12.394 trillion. The measure was approved with 218 votes in the House and 60 in the Senate – the barest of minimums required to pass major legislation. Thirty-nine House Republicans and one Democratic senator, Evan Bayh of Indiana, opposed the measure. One Republican senator, George Voinovich of Ohio, broke ranks to vote with Democrats to raise the debt limit. Senator Voinovich, who is retiring from the Senate at the end of the year, met with President Obama in the White House Tuesday to discuss prospects in Congress for a bipartisan commission to help rein in federal deficits.

With the short-term fix, the Treasury Department projects that the government will run out of funds in February. Because neither party wants to repeat a career-busting government shutdown, a longer-term debt increase appears to be only a matter of time.

A vote to watch on Jan. 20

But the debate and vote, expected on Jan. 20, give both sides a chance to test support for plans to lower federal budget deficits. Such plans are likely to factor in the 2010 midterm elections.

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