Congress approves increase in debt limit after dramatic vote

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, (D-Nev.) (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, (D-Nev.) (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The Senate voted 55 to 43 to pass a suspension of the limit on federal borrowing Wednesday, ensuring that the Treasury does not default on its more than $17 trillion debt for another year. 

With the Republican-controlled House approving the "clean" debt-ceiling increase Tuesday without any concessions, the legislation now goes to President Obama for his signature. The votes came two weeks before the Feb. 27 deadline established by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Financial experts had warned of havoc in financial markets if Congress didn't act by then.

The final-passage vote came after a dramatic, hour-long vote to end debate and assure Republicans did not filibuster the legislation. Needing 60 votes, including at least five Republicans, the Senate remained stuck in the upper 50-vote range for an extended period, as Republicans stood debating which of them would cast the unpopular vote to reach 60. Finally, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) sided with the Democrats, putting them over the 60-vote threshold.

Soon after, a half dozen other Republicans joined the two leaders -- both of whom face primary challengers from their right flank who are opposed to lifting the debt ceiling -- bringing to 67 the final tally of those voting to end the filibuster. In the end, 12 Republicans joined all 55 members of the Democratic caucus in voting to invoke cloture. Most of those Republicans then opposed the measure on final passage, when a simple majority was required.

With both Democrats and Republicans wanting to dispose of the debt-ceiling issue, Senate leaders had sought to eliminate any filibuster of the House-passed bill and allow a simple majority -- all Democrats -- to approve the suspension of the debt limit until March 2015. However, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) refused to grant his consent to that procedural move, and with Senate rules requiring unanimous consent to waive such a privilege, Cruz forced the Senate to first take a cloture vote, requiring 60 senators to approve ending debate and moving to a final vote.

The Republican surrender probably ended a three-year war by the House GOP against what had been an obscure procedural maneuver to ensure that the nation’s past bills were paid on time.

In early 2011, after claiming the majority, Republicans seized on the debt ceiling as leverage to gain major concessions from Obama. They were able to do so twice, but Republicans undercut their position in October when they shut down the government and caused a national backlash.

At the time, they also approved a temporary suspension of the debt ceiling, with vows to extract something from Obama this month. But with the political fallout from the impasse fresh in their minds, there was no desire among House Republicans to force another showdown.

Other Republicans who voted in favor of the debt ceiling increase praised McConnell and Cornyn -- members of the party leadership -- for voting for the increase.

“McConnell especially,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who voted in favor of the bill. “I think it showed tremendous courage on his part.”

The Tennessee senator went on to question the motives his Republican colleagues who forced the 60-vote threshold.

“There was no endgame there.” Corker said. “There was no stated outcome by anyone other than a clean debt ceiling. We can put the country through two weeks of turmoil, or we can get this vote done.”

Republicans credited McConnell with finding the necessary votes and noted that it was a risky decision for the Senate minority leader to vote for the bill himself, given his primary challenger.

“It was a very courageous act, especially by Senator McConnell who we all know is in a very tough race,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said. “He knows he’s the leader. He is the elected Republican leader, and it was up to him to cast the right vote.”

Several of the Republicans who voted in favor of the debt-ceiling hike declined to attack Cruz for his decision to demand a 60-vote threshold, which forced them to support a debt-limit hike unpopular in many of their districts. As he left the Senate chamber, a defiant Cruz said passing the debt-limit suspension was the wrong decision.

“Just about every American understands that we can’t keep going the way we’re going. We’re bankrupting the country. It’s irresponsible,” Cruz said. “Today was a classic victory for Washington establishment interests, and the people who lost today are the American people.”

Cruz said he didn’t feel sorry for forcing several Republicans to vote in favor of the debt-limit increase. Asked if McConnell should be replaced, Cruz said little.

“That is ultimately a decision … for the voters of Kentucky,” he said before ducking into an elevator.

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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