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 McConnell (Ky.) to cast a surprise vote advancing the legislation.
McConnell and top lieutenant Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) reluctantly backed ending debate after it became clear that no one in their conference wanted to cast the deciding 60th vote.
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 Hatch (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 Corker (R-Tenn.) said. “He did that, and I think it shows tremendous courage on his part.”
Sen. John McCain (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 Boehner (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 Collins (Maine), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Mike Johanns (Neb.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), John Barasso (Wyo.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and John Thune (S.D.). Thune and Barasso are also members of leadership.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (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.