The House on Monday approved bipartisan legislation to raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling and reduce long-term budget deficits, endorsing the agreement President Obama struck with Republican leaders.
The vote also featured the surprise and emotional return of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who survived an assassination attempt earlier this year. She cast her vote in favor of the measure to a standing ovation from both parties.
The vote was 269-161, as Republicans largely carried the measure over the opposition of half of the Democratic Caucus. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) backed the bill, as did Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), but neither leader made a public effort to win Democratic support. Sixty-six Republicans voted no, while 95 Democrats supported it and 95 opposed.
After months of legislative wrangling, House passage of the debt-limit bill followed a frantic effort by Republican leaders and the White House to secure the necessary votes for a pact they finalized on Sunday. Obama dispatched Vice President Biden to sell the deal to congressional Democrats, while House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) briefed House Republicans for a second straight day.
The dramatic appearance of Giffords overwhelmed the House chamber, momentarily reducing the result of the crucial vote to an afterthought.
With the bill more than 40 votes short of passage, Boehner left the House floor and walked around the chamber to meet Giffords, who was escorted in by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a close friend and the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. Walking haltingly, Giffords entered the chamber and was immediately swarmed by members, including Pelosi. Lawmakers stood and applauded for several minutes, and dozens of Democrats joined Giffords in casting yes votes to put the measure well over the top. Pelosi could be seen wiping tears from her eyes, and Biden entered the hall to see Giffords.
Earlier Monday, Boehner met separately with GOP members of the House Armed Services Committee, who voiced concerns about the level of military cuts in the bill. “This is the best defense number we’re going to get,” the Speaker said he told the committee. The panel’s chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), released a statement supporting the legislation, albeit “with deep reservations.”
House Republican leaders heralded the debt-limit bill as an imperfect measure that would usher in a culture change in Washington spending.
The bill creates a process for increasing the debt ceiling by at least $2.1 trillion through 2012 while reducing the deficit by nearly $1 trillion over 10 years. The legislation also establishes a 12-member joint congressional committee that must identify, by Nov. 23, an additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction. If the committee fails, or if Congress does not enact its recommendations, the legislation triggers automatic cuts both to entitlement and defense programs.
“The big win here for us and for the American people is the fact that there are no tax hikes in this package,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said. He said the bill is “not perfect,” but likened the effort to push back at Washington’s culture and reduce federal spending to “turning around an aircraft carrier.”
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Republicans said they achieved two-thirds of the spending cuts they sought in their 2012 budget resolution.
“The numbers relative to the problem are minimal, but the directional change is huge,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), the chairman of the House Republican Conference.
Among Democrats who voted for the measure, virtually none of them did so enthusiastically. “I’m not happy with it, but I’m proud of some of the accomplishments contained in it and that is why I am voting for it,” Pelosi said in a floor speech shortly before the vote.
Pelosi and other Democratic leaders argued more for what the bill excluded than what it contained. The former Speaker said the party had succeeded in preventing benefit cuts to the core safety-net programs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
“Please think of what would happen if we defaulted,” Pelosi said in a message to fellow Democrats, warning that the middle-class Americans the party fought to protect would wind up as “collateral damage” in an economic calamity.
“I would urge you to consider voting yes, but I completely respect the hesitation that members have about this,” Pelosi said.
House liberals condemned the measure as a capitulation to the GOP. The chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), compared it to a “sugar-coated satan sandwich.” In an interview with ABC News, Pelosi did not dispute the characterization, adding that it came with a side of “Satan fries.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said Republicans acted as “arsonists” in the debt-limit debate, but he said he would vote for the bill anyway.
“The arsonists must be stopped,” he said. “We have a choice — compromise or chaos — and I’m choosing compromise. I will vote for the bill and hope we can close this distasteful chapter in American politics.”
Cantor said the House planned to leave Washington for its August recess after voting on the legislation Monday.
While GOP leaders voiced confidence in the hours leading up to the vote, they engaged in a veritable staring contest with Democrats over which party would put the bill over the top.
After the Democratic leadership indicated it would not whip its members in support, Boehner spoke up.
“I would remind all of you that this is not just an agreement between the president and myself,” Boehner said in an afternoon press conference. “This is an agreement between the bipartisan leaders of this Congress and the president of the United States, and all the leaders have a responsibility, because they’ve all signed off on the agreement, to bring sufficient votes to make sure it passes.”
—This story was updated at 7:50 p.m.