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 McConnellProgressive group changes tone on Kaine Trump hits Kaine on TPP: He supports a 'job killer' Clinton maps out first 100 days MORE (Ky.) to cast a surprise vote advancing the legislation.

McConnell and top lieutenant Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP senators to donors: Stick with us regardless of Trump Hopes dim for mental health deal Overnight Finance: Senate punts on Zika funding | House panel clears final spending bill | Biz groups press Treasury on tax rules | Obama trade rep confident Pacific deal passes this year 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 CruzDems flirt with disaster on convention’s first day Team Clinton: Sanders will help campaign take on 'rigged system' Clinton brings in the heavy hitters 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 HatchFroman: Too early to start trade talks with the UK Bacteria found ahead of Olympics underscores need for congressional action for new antibiotics Burr pledges to retire after one more Senate term 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 CorkerTrump starts considering Cabinet Trump's secret weapon is Ivanka Senate Dems introduce Iran sanctions extension MORE (R-Tenn.) said. “He did that, and I think it shows tremendous courage on his part.” 

Sen. John McCainJohn McCainSyria activists cheer Kaine pick Clinton brings in the heavy hitters Guess which Cuban-American 2016 candidate best set themselves up for 2020? 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 BoehnerConservative allies on opposite sides in GOP primary fight Clinton maps out first 100 days The Hill's 12:30 Report 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 CollinsThe Trail 2016: Words matter Lobbyists bolting Trump convention early GOP sen at convention: I'm not ruling out voting for Clinton MORE (Maine), Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeVulnerable GOP senators praise Kaine GOP Sen. Flake offers Trump rare praise Booker denounces ‘lock her up' chants MORE (Ariz.), Mike JohannsMike JohannsTo buy a Swiss company, ChemChina must pass through Washington Republican senator vows to block nominees over ObamaCare co-ops Revisiting insurance regulatory reform in a post-crisis world MORE (Neb.), Mark KirkMark KirkNBA pulls All-Star Game from NC over bathroom law GOP groups scale back support for Sen. Johnson Top GOP senator: Trump will have little effect on Senate races MORE (Ill.), John Barasso (Wyo.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiBig Oil makes a push for risky and reckless Arctic drilling GOP divided over 0M for climate fund Overnight Energy: House passes first Interior, EPA spending bill in seven years MORE (Alaska) and John ThuneJohn ThuneFCC chief pushes phone companies to offer free robocall blocking How the new aviation law will affect your travel GOP chairman seeks answers about Tesla’s autopilot feature MORE (S.D.). Thune and Barasso are also members of leadership. 

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamSyria activists cheer Kaine pick Vulnerable GOP senators praise Kaine Meghan McCain: ‘I no longer recognize my party’ 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.

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