Republicans take debt ceiling to the limit

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The White House might have gotten a clean debt-ceiling increase this time, but things likely won't be as easy next time around.

Republican leaders' decision to allow a clean bill stemmed from the political calculation that it was better to keep the public's focus on ObamaCare's struggles as the midterms approach, say GOP strategists.

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That factor won't be there when the debt ceiling will next need to be increased at some point in 2015. If Republicans gain Senate seats, as expected, that simple math would make it even harder.

Democrats and a number of pundits framed the vote as the potential end to the era of Republicans demanding concessions in exchange for a debt ceiling hike. But it seems unlikely the same process would happen next time.

"If the Senate falls near or under Republican control, it'll be very clear there will not be another clean debt ceiling passed next year," said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) broke with the majority of their party and voted to allow an increase to the debt ceiling without any attached spending cuts. In the Senate, McConnell voted against the bill itself but supported a procedural motion that allowed it to pass with a 50-vote threshold.

But Boehner was just one of 28 House Republicans to vote for the increase, and McConnell only voted for cloture to let the increase come up for a vote without a 60-vote margin after other Republicans refused to do so in his stead. Both took heat from their primary opponents, conservative media and outside groups for doing so.

"It was smart of McConnell and [Texas Sen. John] Cornyn to go down and take one bullet in order for Democrats to keep taking tremendous incoming fire over ObamaCare," said Bonjean. "If the numbers shift in Republicans’ favor, this will not be groundhog day on the debt ceiling. It's a lot more likely Republicans will demand more concessions from the president than ever let that happen again."

Their calculus is simple: With Republicans likely to pick up Senate seats and fairly good odds of winning control of the upper chamber, they will be in a stronger position to negotiate with President Obama. They'll also be under more pressure from the GOP base not to capitulate — even if they fall short of recapturing the Senate.

"You got the one pass. But if you do take control or come close, saying 'OK, after the next election' isn't going to fly with the base. The base is tired of hearing 'next election,' " said GOP strategist Ford O'Connell. "The base is only going to stay patient for so long."

The crop of Republican Senate hopefuls are unlikely to give leadership that much leverage next time, though. According to a survey by The Hill, among the dozens of GOP candidates running in competitive Senate races, opposition to a clean debt-ceiling increase was nearly unanimous.

Only Michigan Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land (R), one of the few Republicans without a primary, said she would have voted with McConnell to allow a 50-vote threshold to increase the debt ceiling.

"Terri knows that the full faith and credit of the United States is nothing to play politics with and would have voted for the procedural vote, but she is also dedicated to breaking Washington's spending addiction and would have opposed the final vote to raise the debt limit without reforms," Land campaign spokeswoman Heather Swift told The Hill.

Sitting members of Congress who are looking to move up to the Senate all opposed the bill in the House, too. Even though they're heavy favorites for their party's nomination, Reps. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), all voted "no" on the clean debt limit increase.

Others who don't have a vote now also say they would have opposed such a move.

"Any future debt limit increase should include provisions that address the underlying problem of the out-of-control national debt. I would have voted 'no' on the clean debt limit increase and as part of a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, I will help set priorities that will bring down our national debt," Virginia Senate hopeful Ed Gillespie told The Hill in an emailed statement.

Some Republicans, looking to stand out in a crowded GOP field, used the vote as fodder to attack their Democratic opponents.

"With a national debt over $17.3 trillion or $54,000 for every American, we are clearly on an unsustainable fiscal path. Instead of righting that course, Senator Begich voted today to send a blank check to President Obama, allowing the federal government to recklessly spend money we don't have," Alaska Senate candidate Dan Sullivan (R) said in a statement blasting Sen. Mark Begich's (D-Alaska) vote for the increase.

Sullivan is locked in a competitive GOP primary for just the right to face Begich. If he gets to the Senate in the fall, expect other freshmen to follow with similar votes if their rhetoric and reactions now are any indication.

"If the numbers in the Senate are to shift in Republicans' favor, you're not going to have the atmosphere pushing for a clean debt ceiling," said Bonjean. "The only reason it was done is to keep the spotlight of weakness on Democrats. The issue here is to grow the number of Senate Republicans so they can have more leverage and demand concessions."

— Alexandra Jaffe, Jasmine Sachar and Sheila Timmons contributed.