WASHINGTON — Members of Congress never have been particularly eager to remind the public that they regularly vote to raise the ceiling on the national debt, which now exceeds $12 trillion.
The debt has more than doubled since 2002, and in the last two years it has been rising at a clip of more than $3.8 billion a day. Were it divided equally among U.S. citizens, each person now has a share that's estimated at more than $39,000.
With so much red ink, Congress has been racing to keep up. In the last eight years, members have voted seven times to increase the statutory debt limit to allow more borrowing, often doing it quietly, attaching the measure to broader spending bills to avoid unpleasant debate.
That could change in December, when Senate Democrats and Republicans alike are expected to resist the latest plan to raise the ceiling by nearly $1 trillion.
The vote on increasing the debt will come just as Congress tries to put the finishing touches on a trillion-dollar plan to overhaul the nation's health care system and President Obama considers a possible escalation in the war in Afghanistan that could cost another trillion dollars during the next 10 years.
A bipartisan group of more than a dozen senators is threatening to vote against an increase in the debt limit unless Congress passes a new deficit-fighting plan.
"I will not vote for raising the debt limit without a vehicle to handle this.... This is our moment," California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said.
She and nine other senators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., asking that Congress create a special commission to make recommendations that then could be decided by an up-or-down vote.
Some liberals have criticized the idea, fearing that it would take away too much power from Congress and turn it over to an independent commission.
Increasing the statutory debt limit has become an increasingly difficult vote for many lawmakers: If they failed to raise the ceiling, the government would go broke and couldn't make payments for Social Security and other programs. If they raise it, they look like spendthrifts who can't balance a budget.
The Obama administration has asked Congress to raise the debt ceiling, and Treasury Department officials have said they're working with congressional leaders behind the scenes. While no date has been set for a final vote, it's expected to come up sometime before Christmas, before members adjourn for the year.