Senate clears debt limit measure for Obama

By Andrew Taylor

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 12 2014 2:25 p.m. MST

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and other senators, rush to the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 12, 2014, for a vote to extend the Treasury's borrowing authority. The debt limit measure was passed by the House Tuesday.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

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.

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