February 12, 2014, 03:20 pm
Senate approves debt hike after McConnell, GOP leaders vote 'yes'
By Ramsey Cox
The Senate approved a hike to the debt ceiling on Wednesday — but only after a dramatic procedural vote that forced GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to vote in favor of advancing the legislation.
McConnell and top lieutenant Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) backed the motion to end debate despite the GOP leader's difficult primary fight. His challenger immediately criticized the vote.
The 67-31 cloture vote took more Senate time than usual, highlighting the arm-twisting going on behind closed doors, as few Republicans wanted to be seen as casting the deciding vote for the bill. It wasn't gaveled closed until more than an hour after it began.
The debt hike was approved on final passage in a 55-43 vote, with all Republicans voting no.
The battle highlighted tensions in the GOP between establishment and Tea Party Republicans.
Sixty votes were needed to clear the procedural hurdle because of a filibuster by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who like other Republicans was deeply disappointed the bill included no spending curbs.
Without a filibuster, however, the bill could have been approved in a majority vote on the backs of Democrats.
In the end, 12 Republicans backed the motion. Many appeared to switch their votes before the final gavel, possibly to give one another cover after McConnell and Cornyn's pivotal votes.
McConnell's vote was particularly notable since he is seen as the most vulnerable Republican up for reelection this year. GOP primary challenger Matt Bevin knocked him for the vote, saying on Twitter that Kentucky deserved better.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) praised McConnell for voting yes on cloture.
"He voted responsibly under the circumstances," Corker said. "Hopefully people will understand that McConnell in the toughest Republican race in the country had the courage to vote the way the vast majority of everybody understood the vote needed to go. He did that and I think it shows tremendous courage on his part."
The GOP senators who voted in favor of ending debate were McConnell, Cornyn, Susan Collins (Maine), Corker, Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Mike Johanns (Neb.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), John Barasso (Wy.), John McCain (Ariz.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and John Thune (S.D.).
The bill will raise the debt ceiling by an unspecified amount by suspending it until March 15, 2015. All of the accumulated debt, which is expected to be hundreds of billions of dollars, would be added to the approximately $17.2 trillion U.S. debt at that time.
Only 28 Republicans voted for the debt hike in the House when it was approved by that chamber on Tuesday. The legislation will now go to President Obama, who has said he will sign it.
The Senate rushed to complete the bill ahead of a snowstorm expected to hit the Capitol.
The Treasury Department had set a Feb. 27 deadline for Congress to raise the debt ceiling. With a recess scheduled for next week, that gave the House and Senate little time for action.
Moving a clean debt ceiling bill represented a significant shift for House Republicans, who since taking back the lower chamber in 2010 have fought to reduce government spending.
On Wednesday, it was clear that Senate Republicans also had difficulty in agreeing to the change.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his leadership team initially sought to add legislation reversing a $6 billion cut to military pensions to the bill, but it was rejected by their rank-and-file members and Democrats, who wanted a clean debt hike.
Boehner then opted to move a clean hike to the debt ceiling. He had previously signaled no desire to repeat the standoff that led to the 16-day shutdown in October that battered Republican poll numbers.
Boehner’s decision to move a clean bill was controversial with conservative groups, however. The Senate Conservatives Fund called for Boehner’s ouster, while the Club for Growth and Heritage Action urged no votes on the debt hike.
Boehner said he had little choice but to cave to Obama’s wishes for a clean bill.
“We don’t have 218 votes, and when you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing,” he said on Tuesday.