WASHINGTON — After a dramatic Senate tally in which top GOP leaders cast the crucial votes, must-pass legislation to allow the government to borrow money to pay its bills cleared Congress Wednesday for President Barack Obama's signature.
The Senate approved the measure by a near party-line 55-43 vote. All of the "aye" votes came from Obama's Democratic allies.
But 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 filibuster hurdle insisted on by tea party Republican Ted Cruz of Texas. The Senate's top two Republicans — both facing tea party challenges in their GOP 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, R-Ky., and Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, 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.
"A lot of people stepped up and did what they needed to do," said Sen. Bob Corker. R-Tenn., who voted to advance the bill, as did Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who said: "Members didn't want to" vote for it.
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 a May primary, whose supporters adamantly oppose increasing the debt limit.
"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.
After the tally, Cruz said he had no regrets, saying the "Senate has given President Obama a blank check."
Asked about forcing a difficult vote upon McConnell, Cruz said: "That is ultimately a decision ... for the voters of Kentucky."
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 GOP agenda items like winning approval of construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
The measure is required so that the government can borrow to pay bills like Social Security benefits, federal salaries, and payments to Medicare and Medicaid providers.
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.
Republicans have been less confrontational after October's 16-day partial government shutdown sent GOP poll numbers skidding and chastened the party's tea party faction. Republicans have instead sought to focus voters' attention on the implementation and effects of Obama's health care law.
The measure is required so that the government can borrow to pay all of its bills, including Social Security benefits, federal salaries, payments to Medicare and Medicaid providers and interest on the accumulated debt. 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.
Most Republicans say any increase in the debt ceiling should be accompanied by cuts to the spiraling costs of costly benefit programs like Medicare.
"We need some reform before we raise the debt ceiling. We need to demonstrate that we are taking steps that will reduce the accumulation of debt in the future," said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, top Republican on the Budget Committee. "And the president and the Democratic Senate have just flatly refused. So they've just said, 'We'll accept no restraint on spending'."
Some Republicans seemed irked that Cruz wouldn't let the bill pass without forcing it to clear a 60-vote threshold that required some Republicans to walk the plank and help it advance..
"I'm not going to talk about that," said Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, when asked if Republicans are annoyed with Cruz.
Passage of the debt limit measure without any extraneous issues comes after House GOP leaders tried for weeks to find a formula to pass a version of their own that included Republican agenda items like approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and 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 Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to turn to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., 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 GOP 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.
"I think we will go back to the responsible way of making sure that our country does not default," said Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Senate action Wednesday cleared 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.