By a margin 269 to 161, with 66 Republicans voting no and 95 Democrats voting yes, the House passed the debt-ceiling increase with the accompanying package of cuts. It is remarkable that, after all of the controversy and huffing and puffing, the speaker of the House wound up with so much room to spare.

The moment was overshadowed by the appearance and ovation for Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) who returned to vote. It was a feel-good moment, after many angry and frustrating days.

Democrats lost on virtually every issue of principle (taxes, a clean debt bill, real spending cuts) because the president insisted above all else on getting himself to the next election without another showdown. (That position became more sympathetic to those who agonized through the last week or so.)

Republicans should be cautious. The House held off the president and the Senate. It refused to raise taxes, and thereby maintained a stark and compelling distinction between the parties. It made some real, if not overwhelming, cuts. More was not possible. You can’t get Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform bill with only the House. You can't insure an adequate level of defense spending with only the House. You can’t get Medicaid and Social Security reform with only the House.

Relief is the prevalent emotion for conservatives — relief that the Tea Party didn’t divide the party, that the speaker maintained the affection and loyalty of his caucus, that taxes weren’t raised and that at least we are moving in the right direction.

More than anything else, the debt-ceiling vote is a windup to the 2012 presidential election. The Republican presidential candidate will need to make sharp distinctions on taxes, spending and national security. If Republicans retake the White House, the details of the debt-ceiling bill become irrelevant. If Obama is re-elected, nothing done today will much matter.