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 McConnellDems gain upper hand on budget Overnight Finance: Senate rejects funding bill as shutdown looms | Labor Dept. to probe Wells Fargo | Fed to ease stress test rules for small banks Overnight Energy: Judges scrutinize Obama climate rule MORE (Ky.) to cast a surprise vote advancing the legislation.

McConnell and top lieutenant Sen. John CornynJohn CornynDems gain upper hand on budget McConnell: Senate could drop flood money from spending bill Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears 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 CruzFunding bill rejected as shutdown nears Cruz: Clinton 'tired' and 'formulaic' during debate The Trail 2016: Fight night 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 HatchInternet companies dominate tech lobbying Senate panel approves pension rescue for coal miners Overnight Tech: GOP says internet fight isn't over | EU chief defends Apple tax ruling | Feds roll out self-driving car guidelines | Netflix's China worries 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 poised to override Obama veto US general calls out Pakistan on support for Afghan militants This week: Shutdown deadline looms over Congress MORE (R-Tenn.) said. “He did that, and I think it shows tremendous courage on his part.” 

Sen. John McCainJohn McCainGreen Beret awarded for heroism during 'pandemonium' of Boston bombing House passes bill exempting some from ObamaCare mandate NBC's Lester Holt emerges from debate bruised and partisan 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 BoehnerRepublican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare The disorderly order of presidential succession 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 CollinsSwing-state Republicans play up efforts for gun control laws Reid knocks GOP on gun 'terror loophole' after attacks GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase MORE (Maine), Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeTop GOP chairmen investigating foreign visa program Pence rallies GOP before final stretch Libertarian nominee top choice among veterans 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 KirkSenate rivals gear up for debates The Trail 2016: Trump seizes on Charlotte violence Iran president hints at future prisoner swaps, cash settlements with US MORE (Ill.), John Barasso (Wyo.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiOvernight Energy: Obama integrates climate change into national security planning GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase Overnight Energy: Lawmakers kick off energy bill talks MORE (Alaska) and John ThuneJohn ThuneOvernight Tech: Lawmakers, tech talk diversity | Group raises security worries over internet handoff | FCC commish wants probe into debate Wi-Fi Reid blocks Thune tech bill over FCC nomination fight Overnight Tech: Tech pushes for debate spotlight | Disney may bid for Twitter | Dem seeks Yahoo probe MORE (S.D.). Thune and Barasso are also members of leadership. 

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamObama nominates ambassador to Cuba Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears Shutdown risk grows over Flint 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.