Dramatic debt vote stirs Senate
© Greg Nash

The Senate sent a bill hiking the debt ceiling to President Obama’s desk on Wednesday, but only after a dramatic fight that forced GOP Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellThe real reason why ObamaCare repeal failed Path to 60 narrows for Trump pick Dems delay Senate panel vote on Supreme Court nominee MORE (Ky.) to cast a surprise vote advancing the legislation.

McConnell and top lieutenant Sen. John CornynJohn CornynNo. 2 Senate Democrat to oppose Trump's Supreme Court pick Top GOP senator: 'Tragic mistake' if Democrats try to block Gorsuch House GOP insists: We’re not giving up on ObamaCare repeal MORE (Texas) reluctantly backed ending debate after it became clear that no one in their conference wanted to cast the deciding 60th vote.

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Sixty votes were needed to overcome a filibuster by Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzWounded Ryan faces new battle The mystery of Ivanka Trump Conservatism's worst enemy? The Freedom Caucus. MORE (R-Texas), who complained that Congress was raising the debt ceiling without demanding any curbs on Washington’s spending.

With the upper chamber’s Democrats and Independents all voting yes, Senate Republicans needed to muster five votes to overcome Cruz.

Yet during an hour of tense floor conversations, it appeared they might fail.

The vote started late, as Senate Republicans huddled behind closed doors. After meeting for roughly an hour in private, the conference still did not know whether it could conjure up the needed votes.

On the floor, the procedural vote ran on for another hour, with Republicans slow to offer support.

Cornyn and McConnell, who is the most vulnerable Senate Republican up for reelection in 2014, then voted to end the debate, making it clear the procedural motion would be approved.

After their dramatic votes, another group of Republicans met in a room off the Senate floor. They returned, and several switched their votes from no to yes.

Some members said they switched their votes to give cover to McConnell and Cornyn.

“I didn’t want this to come down to just be a criticized vote for just a few of our people. It just wasn’t right,” said Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin HatchCan Trump rebound after failure on healthcare bill? Overnight Finance: US preps cases linking North Korea to Fed heist | GOP chair says Dodd-Frank a 2017 priority | Chamber pushes lawmakers on Trump's trade pick | Labor nominee faces Senate US Chamber urges quick vote on USTR nominee Lighthizer MORE (R-Utah), who fought off a primary challenger in 2012 and is serving his last term.

In the end, 12 Republicans voted to end debate in the 67-31 vote.

On final passage, the bill suspending the debt ceiling until March 15, 2015, was approved in a 55-43 vote, with every Republican voting no.

The bill will allow hundreds of billions in surplus spending accumulated through that deadline to be added to the existing $17.2 trillion debt. It also ensures the debt ceiling will not need to be raised again until well after the midterm elections.

Obama backed the bill and is expected to sign it.

The battle over the procedural vote highlighted tensions in the GOP between establishment and Tea Party Republicans.

Centrist Republicans had spent days trying to convince Cruz to drop his filibuster so the bill could be approved in a simple majority vote on the backs of Democrats. 

After the vote, Cruz blasted the debt hike as “a classic victory for Washington establishment interests.”

Asked if McConnell should no longer lead Senate Republicans, Cruz demurred.

“That is ultimately a decision, in the first instance, for the voters of Kentucky to make,” he said.

McConnell’s GOP primary challenger Matt Bevin attacked the incumbent before the vote was over, writing on Twitter that Kentucky deserves better.

But McConnell was backed by members of his conference who praised what they described as a courageous vote.

“Hopefully people will understand that McConnell, in the toughest Republican race in the country, had the courage to vote the way the vast majority of everybody understood the vote needed to go,” Sen. Bob CorkerBob CorkerSenate takes up NATO membership for Montenegro GOP lawmaker: Time to work with Dems on healthcare GOP senator: I'm ready to work with Trump, Dems on healthcare MORE (R-Tenn.) said. “He did that, and I think it shows tremendous courage on his part.” 

Sen. John McCainJohn McCainGraham: Nunes should reveal surveillance source Intel Dem on Nunes: ‘This is what a cover-up to a crime looks like’ McCain: Nunes has 'a lot of explaining to do' MORE (R-Ariz.), who also planned to vote no but then switch his vote to yes on the procedural motion, said McConnell showed “a great deal of leadership, so did Cornyn.”

“Both of them are in primaries, particularly Mitch. They played the leaders’ role,” he said.

It was the same position that Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerNunes rebuffs calls for recusal Wounded Ryan faces new battle Bottom Line MORE (R-Ohio) and his leadership team played in Tuesday’s House vote, when only 28 Republicans voted to raise the debt ceiling.

McCain said the debt vote would allow the GOP to move on from fiscal fights that damaged the party’s image in the fall, when it got the lion’s share of the blame in polls for the government shutdown.

“Our focus is on ObamaCare, repeal and replace ObamaCare,” McCain said. “If you shift the attention like we did on the shutdown of the government, then we lose our focus on what we think is important.”

The Republicans who voted in favor of ending debate were McConnell, Cornyn, Hatch, McCain, Corker and Sens. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsSenators offer tax bill aimed at helping small businesses Top GOP senator: 'Tragic mistake' if Democrats try to block Gorsuch McCaskill investigating opioid producers MORE (Maine), Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeWounded Ryan faces new battle Overnight Tech: High court hears case on where patent suits are filed | House to vote on blocking internet privacy rules | Facebook's new tools for voters House to vote Tuesday on blocking Obama internet privacy rules MORE (Ariz.), Mike JohannsMike JohannsLobbying World To buy a Swiss company, ChemChina must pass through Washington Republican senator vows to block nominees over ObamaCare co-ops MORE (Neb.), Mark KirkMark KirkObamaCare repeal bill would defund Planned Parenthood Leaked ObamaCare bill would defund Planned Parenthood GOP senator won't vote to defund Planned Parenthood MORE (Ill.), John Barasso (Wyo.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiElle honors 10 at annual 'Women in Washington' event Five takeaways from Labor pick’s confirmation hearing ObamaCare repeal faces last obstacle before House vote MORE (Alaska) and John ThuneJohn ThuneThis week: GOP picks up the pieces after healthcare defeat Lawmakers want infrastructure funded by offshore tax reform Senate GOP hedges on ObamaCare repeal timeline MORE (S.D.). Thune and Barasso are also members of leadership. 

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamGraham: Nunes should reveal surveillance source Can Trump rebound after failure on healthcare bill? Senate takes up NATO membership for Montenegro MORE (R-S.C.) predicted McConnell’s vote will have minimal impact on his reelection race.

“I think people understood that he is not for raising the debt ceiling without something attached. Obviously, that was impossible after the House voted for a clean increase,” Graham said. “Hopefully the other people voting with him helps and hopefully people see it as an act of pragmatic leadership.”

This story was posted at 2:56 p.m. and updated at 8:09 p.m.