The legislation was assembled by Republicans last week in an effort to choke off increased spending during budget negotiations with the White House. It also lets Republicans embrace two popular campaign issues â€“ debt-cutting and protecting Social Security and Medicare â€“ while blunting Democratic criticism that they are the party of fiscal irresponsibility.
After a brief debate, the bill passed, 381-3. Republicans were so confident about the measure that they packaged it into a series of votes that required a two-thirds majority. The Senate is also expected to approve the measure overwhelmingly.
"Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has said debt relief is the best way to keep our economy strong," Rep. Bill Archer of Texas, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said in a prepared statement. "Of course, Chairman Greenspan also has said that the worst possible use of these surplus funds is for more spending."
But Democrats, all but three of whom voted for the bill, said it was a move by Republicans to distance themselves from their own tax-cut proposals and seize a popular issue.
They also said House Republicans were breaking with their presidential nominee, Gov. George W. Bush, by trying to protect the Medicare surplus. Mr. Bush's 10-year budget plan would require using money from the Medicare surplus. "They have walked away to this new position," said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash. "They've figured out the American people want debt reduction."