The House approved a year-long suspension of the nation’s debt limit Tuesday in a vote that left Republicans once again ceding control to Democrats after a collapse in support for an earlier proposal advanced by Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
In a narrow vote, 221 to 201, just 28 Republicans joined nearly all Democrats to approve a “clean” extension of the government’s borrowing authority — one without strings attached — sending the measure to the Senate for a final vote, probably this week.
The legislation, which Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) vowed to pass and President Obama said he would sign, would eliminate any chance of default on $17.2 trillion in debt — and the financial havoc that would ensue — until March 2015.
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 from which they could gain major concessions from Obama.
Twice they were able to do so, 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.
Tuesday’s House vote marked the latest rebuke to Boehner from the conservative faction of his GOP caucus, which opposed several proposals his leadership team had presented as a way to win Republican votes. His last offer, to link the debt-ceiling increase to a popular proposal to restore cuts to some military pensions, was soundly rejected by rank-and-file Republicans.
The speaker conceded defeat at a morning huddle of his caucus, joking about how no one clapped after he saved them from having to support a debt-limit increase, according to people at the meeting.
At a news conference afterward, Boehner broke into a tune from “Song of the South” to try to remain upbeat. “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay,” he sang.
Despite the setback, Boehner’s leadership team was able to move past what could have been another ill-fated fiscal showdown with minimal political damage, a stark contrast to the disastrous 16-day shutdown.
Republicans said they will now spend the next eight months focusing on Obama’s rollout of the health-care law and the struggling economy ahead of this year’s midterm elections. Leaders even allowed the bill to pass ahead of schedule, so that lawmakers could leave early for a two-week recess before the potential snowfall.
Still, Tuesday’s actions pierced the relative calm that Boehner and House Republicans had enjoyed since the shutdown ended in mid-October. The speaker appeared more comfortable than at any time in his three-year reign, taking shots at outside conservative groups that had opposed his previous deals with Democrats.
At the outset of these debt talks, some of Boehner’s fiercest critics made clear that they would not punish him if he caved — but in the end, he rediscovered the limits of his power.
House Republicans are more content with his stewardship than they were a year ago, when he survived a coup attempt. But they remain unwilling to vote for some compromises, preferring the ideological purity of opposing something they know will pass with Democratic support.
“It wasn’t exactly a profile in courage,” Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), one of the 28 Republicans who voted yes, said afterward. “You had members saying they hoped it passed but unwilling to vote for it.”
Boehner’s inability to rally his caucus on the debt limit cast new doubt on his ability to move immigration legislation this year, an effort that seemed to gather momentum two weeks ago when his leadership team announced a summary of core principles. But House conservatives oppose providing legal status to illegal immigrants already in the country, and late last week Boehner slowed consideration of the legislation.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) mocked Republicans for their initial inability to guarantee 20 votes for the debt bill once it was clear they could not pass their own. “Isn’t that pathetic that they can only get 18 votes to ensure that their nation can pay its bills?” Hoyer said to reporters.
Republicans acknowledged this week that there were virtually no circumstances under which they could approve a debt-ceiling increase solely from their side of the aisle, a position that left them no leverage in negations with Senate Democrats and the White House.
“The natural reluctance is obvious,” Rep. Peter Roskam (Ill.), the chief deputy whip, said of his GOP colleagues.
Conservative advocacy groups opposed the clean bill, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group affiliated with the tea party movement, blasted the speaker in an e-mail, saying, “Boehner must be replaced.”
Although no such coup is on the horizon, Boehner’s last plan crumbled Monday during an informal survey of members on the House floor. Conservatives told the leaders that Boehner would not receive their support, with members of the Republican Study Committee and tea party supporters firmly opposed.
Earlier Monday night, a contentious meeting in the Capitol basement made the leaders wary of proceeding. According to participants, several House Republicans who are leaving to run for Senate seats were particularly upset with the option that Boehner’s team had presented. One of those Republicans was Rep. Tom Cotton (Ark.), a decorated Army veteran.
Cotton, who is in a neck-and-neck race with Sen. Mark Pryor (D), opposed raising the debt limit but did not want to vote against the plan to link the military-
pension issue to the debt-ceiling increase.
After Cotton objected to the plan Monday, Boehner forcefully pushed back, saying that the failure to get a Republican majority left them with nothing but bad choices.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday morning, he said, “When you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing.”
Boehner sounded regretful when asked to explain the turn of events, saying he wished the White House had been more open to dealmaking.
“This is a lost opportunity. We could have sat down and worked together in a bipartisan manner to find cuts and reforms that are greater than increasing the debt limit,” he said, adding: “I am disappointed, to say the least.”
Boehner allies said that his chief priority late Monday, beyond avoiding default, was to avoid a GOP rebellion and another media frenzy spotlighting Republican disarray.
As lawmakers gathered at a Capitol Hill club for the morning meeting, GOP leaders spent the first 30 minutes getting an update on fundraising and political campaigns. Then, without warning, the speaker told the group that he was giving up on the other efforts and bringing a clean bill to the floor.
Some lawmakers were surprised by the abrupt way the speaker shared the news. “I’m not sure what I heard in there,” Rep. Jim Gerlach (Pa.) said as he left the session.
After the meeting, Boehner’s dark humor showed as he entered his weekly news conference. “Happy, happy, happy,” he mused to reporters as he strolled toward the lectern. Ten minutes later, as he left the building, he began to sing softly to himself, as he stepped outside.
“Plenty of sunshine coming my way,” he said.
Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.