House approves clean debt hike

The House passed a clean debt-ceiling hike of undetermined size on Tuesday — a vote that alienated dozens of Republicans and led one conservative group to call for the removal of Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) as Speaker.

The bill was approved in a 221-201 vote, largely on the backs of Democrats. Only 28 Republicans voted for it, while 199 voted against.

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Only two Democrats voted against the clean debt-ceiling hike, which was backed by the White House and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, while 193 voted “yes.” The two defections were Rep. Jim Matheson (Utah), who is not running for reelection, and Rep. John Barrow (Ga.), who faces a tough race. 

GOP “yes” votes included Boehner and his top lieutenants, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.). House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) voted “no.”

The bill suspends the debt ceiling until March 15, 2015, which will allow the government to continue borrowing above the current $17.2 trillion cap. After the suspension ends, the new debt ceiling would equal the amount of debt the government has racked up by then.

House passage sends the bill to the Senate. The upper chamber is expected to approve the bill Wednesday, again on the strength of Democratic support, but also with the support of some Republicans.

The House vote was as surreal for Republicans as it was hastily organized.

House Republicans have spent most of the past three years fighting for spending cuts, but their leaders on Tuesday bowed on a bill that raises the debt ceiling without cutting any spending.

The day began with Boehner and GOP leaders abandoning a plan revealed Monday that would have tied the reversal of an unpopular military pensions cut to the debt ceiling bill.

After rank-and-file members rejected that measure and Boehner determined it could not pass, the Speaker surrendered to a clean debt-ceiling hike.

Leadership quickly scheduled the vote for Tuesday and sped through a floor process to finish it, approving the rule governing proceedings by voice vote.

Boehner said Tuesday he had little choice but to cave to President Obama’s wishes for a clean bill.

“We don’t have 218 votes, and when you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing,” he told reporters.

While Republicans won a battle in 2011 that led to billions of dollars in spending cuts, Democrats and the Obama administration have refused to negotiate further on funding reductions.

October’s 16-day government shutdown resulted in plummeting House GOP poll numbers, and Boehner and his leadership team didn’t want to risk another showdown in an election year where the party has real hopes of winning back the Senate. Boehner is also confident his party will keep the House.

The Speaker’s decision drew heavy criticism from conservative groups. A number noted that the so-called “Boehner rule” now appears dead — that was the informal name for the Speaker’s effort to extract spending cuts in exchange for debt-ceiling hikes.

But Republicans said that, ultimately, they did not have trouble coming up with the roughly two dozen votes they needed to put the bill over the top. A couple of members called the whip’s office to volunteer their votes, according to one source, knowing that many of their colleagues would be in a difficult position.

While the top three members of the Republican Conference voted for the bill, the rest of the elected leadership, including Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), voted “no.”

And the opposition of several close Boehner allies suggested that the leadership comfortably had the votes it needed. Those votes included Reps. Pat Tiberi (Ohio), Tom Cole (Okla.) and Mike Simpson (Wyo.), who is facing a primary challenge.

“Every member voted their conscience,” the chief deputy whip, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), said after the vote.

Asked why he voted for the bill when so many of his colleagues did not, Roskam replied: “We can’t default.”

The Senate Conservatives Fund, however, reacted to the clean debt-ceiling bill by releasing a fundraising letter that called for Boehner to be replaced.

“Conservatives helped John Boehner become Speaker, but he has ignored us and helped President Obama enact his liberal agenda,” the groups said on its website, replacethespeaker.com. “Instead of using the House majority to stop bad legislation, Speaker Boehner has used it to increase spending, raise the debt limit, increase taxes, pass a bloated farm bill, and fund the implementation of Obamacare. Instead of fighting for conservative principles, Speaker Boehner has repeatedly surrendered to the Democrats.”

The Senate Conservatives Fund has long been a thorn in the side of GOP leadership, but its leaders have mostly focused their ire on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

During floor debate, some Republicans defended Boehner’s position and said the Democrats’ refusal to negotiate on spending cuts gave him no other choice — an argument many Republicans will likely use heading into the fall elections.

Democrats largely repeated their argument that Congress must extend the debt ceiling to help ensure the government pays the bills Congress has approved. Democrats, who have long called for a clean extension, were instructed not to enjoy their victory too much, and some welcomed Boehner’s decision.

“The full faith and credit should be unquestioned, and it is not negotiable,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“I thank the Speaker for giving us this opportunity. This is really important, to bring legislation to the floor that is consistent with the intent of the Constitution, and with the best interest of the American people.”

This story was updated at 6:01 p.m. and 8:05 p.m.

Erik Wasson, Russell Berman and Cameron Joseph contributed to this story.