WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Thursday to raise the ceiling on the government debt to $12.4 trillion, a massive increase over the current limit and a political problem that President Obama has promised to address next year.
The Senate's rare Christmas Eve vote, 60-39, follows House passage last week and raises the debt ceiling by $290 billion. The vote split mainly down party lines, with Democrats voting to raise the limit and Republicans voting against doing so. There was one defection on each side, by senators whose seats will be on the ballot next year: GOP Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio and Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., did not vote.
"I would not support raising the debt ceiling because Congress has not adopted a credible process to restrain spending and eliminate red ink," Bayh said a statement after the vote.
The bill permits the Treasury Department to issue enough bonds to fund the government's operations and programs until mid-February. The Senate will vote again on the issue Jan. 20.
Obama must sign the measure into law to prevent a market-rattling, first-ever default on U.S. obligations. The government piled up a record $1.4 trillion deficit in 2009 to counter a meltdown in financial markets and help bring the nation out of its worst recession in seven decades.
With the exception of Voinovich, Republicans uniformly derided the bill, though they routinely supplied votes for eight previous increases totaling $5.4 trillion under President George W. Bush.
Voinovich, who is retiring, said he voted "yes" after Majority Leader Harry Reid agreed to consider amendments when the Senate takes up the matter again next month.
Democrats had originally planned to pass an unprecedented increase of almost $2 trillion to avoid another vote before next year's midterm elections.
But that plan fell apart amid opposition from about a dozen Senate Democratic moderates, who refuse to support a debt limit increase unless it is accompanied by legislation to establish a new bipartisan task force to come up with a plan to curb the deficit.