WASHINGTON (AP) — Must-pass legislation to allow the U.S. government to borrow money to pay its bills cleared Congress Wednesday for President Barack Obama's signature after a dramatic Senate tally in which top Republican leaders cast crucial votes.
The Senate approved the measure by a near party-line 55-43 vote. All of the "aye" votes came from Obama's Democratic allies.
The measure is required so that the government can borrow to pay bills like pension benefits, federal salaries, and payments to health care programs for the elderly and the poor. Congress has never failed to act to prevent a default on U.S. obligations, which most experts say would spook financial markets and spike interest rates.
Quick action on the debt limit bill stands in contrast to lengthy showdowns in 2012 and last fall when Republicans sought to use the critically necessary measure as leverage to win concessions from Obama. They succeeded in 2011, winning about $2 trillion in spending cuts, but Obama has been unwilling to negotiate over the debt limit since his re-election, and Wednesday's legislation is the third consecutive debt measure passed without White House concessions.
With their eye on November elections Republicans have been less confrontational after October's 16-day partial government shutdown sent Republican poll numbers skidding and chastened the party's conservative tea party faction. Republicans have instead sought to focus voters' attention on the implementation and effects of Obama's health care law, which they have targeted as a weakness for the Democrats in an election year. .
The vote to pass the measure was anticlimactic after a dramatic 67-31 tally — held open for more than an hour — in which the measure cleared a procedural hurdle insisted on by tea party Republican Ted Cruz, a potentiazl 2016 presidential candidate. The Senate's top two Republicans — both facing tea party challenges in their party primaries this year — provided crucial momentum after a knot of Republicans in the Senate well were clearly unhappy at having to walk the plank.
After Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his top vote pusher John Cornyn, both Republicans, voted "aye" several other Republicans switched their votes in solidarity. Twelve Republicans ultimately voted to help the measure advance but the tally appeared to be in doubt for several anxious minutes.
Cruz' demands irritated Republicans because it forced several of them, particularly McConnell, to cast a difficult vote. McConnell faces tea party candidate Matt Bevin
"In my view, every Republican should stand together against raising the debt ceiling without meaningful structural reforms to rein in our out of control spending," Cruz said.
The legislation would permit Treasury to borrow normally for another 13 months and then reset the government's borrowing cap, currently set at $17.2 trillion, after that.
It passed the House Tuesday after Republicans gave up efforts to use the debt ceiling measure to win concessions from Obama on Republican agenda items like winning approval of construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada.
Passage of the debt limit measure without any extraneous issues comes after House Republican leaders tried for weeks to find a formula to pass a version of their own that included Republican agenda items like repeal of an element of the health care law. But a sizable faction of House Republicans simply refuse to vote for any increase in the government's borrowing abilities, which forced House Republican Speaker John Boehner to turn to Democratic Minority Leader to pass the measure on the strength of Democrats.
The debt measure permits Treasury to borrow regularly through March 15, 2015, putting the issue off until after the November elections and setting it up for the new Congress to handle next year. If Republicans take over the Senate, they're likely to insist on linking the debt ceiling to spending cuts and other Republican agenda items, but for now at least, the issue is being handled the old fashioned way, with the party of the incumbent president being responsible for supplying the votes to pass it but with the minority party not standing in the way.
Senate action safely clears the debt issue off of Washington's plate weeks in advance of the Feb. 27 deadline set last week by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. The debt limit was reset to $17.2 trillion after a four-month suspension of the prior, $16.7 trillion limit expired last Friday. Lew promptly began employing accounting maneuvers to buy time for Congress to act.